Aston University’s new vice-chancellor warns that UK universities are “collateral damage” in the immigration debate as the government makes the “same mistake” on overseas students that his home country of Australia made before changing tack.
Alec Cameron also said in an interview that UK vice-chancellors had “painted a very negative scenario” on Brexit, arguing that British universities could potentially benefit by “aggressively” recruiting Continental European students.
Professor Cameron, formerly a University of Western Australia deputy vice-chancellor, in September succeeded Dame Julia King at Aston, the fastest-growing university in England since student number controls began to be lifted in 2011.
Asked about the UK’s policy picture compared with Australia, Professor Cameron said: “The one thing I probably find most frustrating at the moment is the discussion around international students and visas and being included in the count of immigrants to this country.
“Because Australia made this same mistake about five years ago, and it took about three years for the sector to be effective in making the case and getting the government to change its mind and exclude international students from the count of immigrants.”
Professor Cameron, a former dean of the University of New South Wales’ business school who has also worked in IT and telecoms companies, said that although he did “appreciate how hot immigration is” as a topic, he believed that it was “very unfortunate that we have this collateral damage associated with British higher education getting caught up in that, when this is such a standout sector for this country internationally”.
Professor Cameron said that his arrival after the UK’s vote to leave the European Union means that he has “less emotional baggage on this than my counterparts”, who “waged a very strong campaign against Brexit and as a result, I think, painted a very negative scenario for the sector post-Brexit”.
He said that although there was a “real issue” in potential loss of research funding, there were also opportunities in student recruitment.
Continental EU students have until now had their tuition fees capped at the same £9,000 level as home students. But once the UK leaves the EU, it is likely that British universities would seek to charge EU students the same fees currently levied against non-EU international students.
Professor Cameron said: “We don’t, and I expect most UK universities don’t, explicitly market and recruit in Europe…at the undergraduate level, because there’s neither the reputational nor financial benefit to do so.
“I could contemplate a post-Brexit world where we actually try to recruit German students as aggressively as we try to recruit Canadian students or Chinese students or students elsewhere in the world.”
Professor Cameron said that Aston’s growth in UK student numbers since 2011 “makes the organisation more resilient financially”, boosts “institutional morale” in showing Aston “growing and prospering”, as well as “transforming lives for a larger number of students”.
However, he said that the staff-to-student ratio has “headed a bit in the wrong direction in the last couple of years”, which was “starting to hurt us a little bit in terms of rankings”, as a result of “academic hiring, which is in train, lagging student recruitment”.
Professor Cameron said that Aston’s focus on graduate employment and industry placement years was its “greatest value proposition”, along with taking “a significant number of students who come from lower socio-economic status backgrounds and achieving fantastic graduate outcomes with those students”.
After the interview for this article, Professor Cameron spoke to us about the issues discussed here.