Skidmore: dragging foreign students into culture war helps no one

Former universities minister warns that Conservatives’ ‘talking down’ of higher education sector will hit UK economy

March 5, 2024
Student fees protesters attempt to throw a fence at police in Parliament Square in December 2010 in London
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Former universities minister Chris Skidmore has criticised new restrictions on UK student visas, claiming they represent a populist “attack on universities based on ignorance” that seek to “stigmatise” higher education and drag it into a migration “culture war”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Skidmore, who served as universities minister under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, said he was profoundly disappointed with the UK government’s growing antagonism towards a sector that should be regarded as one of the UK’s “greatest assets”.

“Governments will come and go but our academic sector is truly world-leading and there is so much potential that has been missed by not supporting it properly,” said Mr Skidmore, who resigned as a Conservative MP in January over the government’s bill to guarantee annual oil and gas licences, which he believed would break Britain’s pledge to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Kingswood seat held by the former energy minister since 2010 was lost to Labour in a by-election last month.

As universities minister, Mr Skidmore launched the UK’s first International Higher Education Strategy in March 2019, which targeted 600,000 overseas enrolments by 2030 – a goal achieved in 2021-22, when 680,000 international students were studying for UK degrees.

However, higher levels of international students have been cited as a key reason for the rise in net migration – which hit 672,000 in the year to June 2023 – leading to the decision to stop taught postgraduate students from bringing family members with them from January. International enrolments on postgraduate courses starting that month were down 44 per cent on last year, according to a Universities UK survey of 73 institutions.

Mr Skidmore, who taught history at the University of Bristol prior to entering Parliament, said these changes would harm universities and the economy, given the £25.6 billion in revenues generated annually by education exports.

“International students are not migrants – they go home. To blend them into a culture war will not help anyone,” he said of what he called “attacks on universities based on ignorance, not evidence”.

“You are tilting at windmills by trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator at the expense of the economy,” continued Mr Skidmore, who said he was concerned by efforts to “stigmatise higher education when it is one of our country’s greatest assets”.

“My former party is now talking down a valuable sector, and I do wonder what they’re doing,” he added.

Tougher rules on student visas and their potential to harm universities had influenced his decision to resign, he added. “I resigned over net-zero commitments, but I looked at what was coming down the track and there was no possibility that I could support what they are doing on international students,” he said, adding that “the legislative clock has now timed out [for this Parliament] so they cannot do any further damage”.

Mr Skidmore’s criticisms come alongside the release of the latest report by the cross-party International Higher Education Commission, which he chairs, reviewing 11 commonly made assertions about international students and the evidence for these claims.

On the claim that there are too many international students, the report, Evidence versus Emotion, explains that enrolment growth was largely flat between 2011 and 2017, with recent increases after that only matching the “high-growth forecast” predicted by Whitehall in 2011. If the UK had the same concentration of international students as Australia, it would have a million international students, it notes.

Mr Skidmore said he hoped the report would raise awareness about how many universities were hugely reliant on certain courses to stay afloat. “The one-year master’s is now dominating – 66 per cent of those taking these courses are international students. I don’t think it is sustainable to put all our eggs in this one-year master’s basket,” he said.

Warning about an over-reliance on students from certain countries, he added: “Four years ago 70 per cent of students came from 17 countries, but now 70 per cent come from just seven countries – we are losing that diversity, which is another challenge.”

The commission also calls for a more strategic approach to international admissions, given that some regions might reach “saturation” in terms of international enrolments while others have capacity to take many more.

“In the past, the UK proposition has been ‘come to the UK’ and universities should fight it out [for students] among themselves. We need to move away from that ‘great campaign’ approach to a situation where regional supply [of international students] aligns with demand,” said Mr Skidmore, who said more emphasis should be placed on how students can “help meet sector demands and help universities”.

That was even more important given the financial stresses faced by many universities. “Very soon four out of five universities are going to be in deficit unless we look seriously at domestic student fee levels,” said Mr Skidmore.

Though he was now out of Parliament, Mr Skidmore said, it was vital to keep making the “positive, forward-looking case” for international students.

“At a time when election manifestos are being written, it’s time to shout about the value of higher education,” he said.

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