Theresa May becoming prime minister could end hopes of a more liberal regime on overseas students, some sector experts fear, but others believe that protecting universities from Brexit damage could prompt her to take a fresh approach.
Ms May, who as home secretary has rejected universities’ and fellow ministers’ appeals to remove students from net migration targets, looked set to be confirmed as the next Conservative leader and prime minister on 11 July.
Her supposed intransigence on overseas students led to her being likened to a Dalek by one vice-chancellor. And at the 2015 Conservative Party conference, she criticised universities over the number of students overstaying visas. “I don’t care what the university lobbyists say,” she told the conference in a speech.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that in talks at universities throughout the year, “I’ve been saying that pretty much any likely replacement for David Cameron, apart from Theresa May, would be good news for international students. But now [Ms May looks set to be prime minister] – that worries me a bit in relation to international students.
“I think, equally, she’s experienced and she’s a tough negotiator. And the universities want a lot, if Brexit happens…They need a tough negotiator fighting for the things Britain is good at.”
Mr Hillman, who was special adviser to Lord Willetts when he served as universities and science minister, added: “In her time as home secretary, we never found the Home Office particularly understanding of the university sector, shall we say?
“And they were always much keener than we would have ever been to have drawn a line…between the Russell Group, or ‘top third’ institutions, in some way, and the rest.
“Occasionally when we used to have our battles with the Home Office, saying ‘please be more liberal on international students’; they would say, ‘well, we could envisage a world where the rules were a bit more liberal for a small number of institutions that we trust.’”
He added: “It was never quite clear if having more liberal rules for some institutions would have meant even tougher rules for the rest.”
But Mr Hillman stressed that he was “not having a dig at Theresa May. I think the Home Office were doing their job. The problem was that other voices were not given equal weight in the conversation.”
Others believe that Ms May’s time as home secretary is not necessarily an indicator of her future positions.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association of modern universities, said: “Theresa May sought to deliver the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments in her brief as home secretary, but this is entirely different from being prime minister, especially one who has said that she wants to unite her party and the country.
“She is highly respected by civil servants and is a serious politician, and we expect her to work hard to live up to this promise, especially since universities, research and staff and student mobility will be key priorities in Brexit negotiations.”
Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central and a long-standing campaigner on overseas student issues, said: “Theresa May has been unhelpful to universities as home secretary, but I hope that a new job might bring a new approach.
“The government must be worried about the impact of Brexit on universities and needs to reflect on how it can mitigate the potential damage.
“An early commitment to participating in Horizon 2020 [the European Union research programme] would help, but we’ll need a new approach on migration, too.
“Greater flexibility on Tier 2 [visa] rules for [non-EU] staff recruitment and taking international students out of net migration targets would be a start. I’ll certainly be pushing on these issues.”
Ms May will have concerned some in the sector with her post-referendum refusal to guarantee the future immigration status of EU nationals in the UK – who make up 16 per cent of academic staff at British universities.
But others have seen it as a tactic aimed at avoiding both a surge in EU nationals coming to the UK and any prejudice to Brexit negotiations on the position of UK nationals in EU states.
Mr Hillman said that her comments on this issue “reinforce what I was saying about her being a tough negotiator”.
As well as her more recent role as home secretary, Ms May also once had a spell as shadow education secretary between 1999 and 2001, under then Conservative leader William Hague.
That saw her unveil a pledge aimed at “setting our universities free” and “removing government interference” by creating institutional endowments to fund teaching via public asset sales. In the same Times Higher Education Supplement interview in 2000, she also said that some former polytechnics had “lost their way” since becoming universities.