The UK Home Office is modelling the potential impact of a dramatic reduction in overseas student numbers to accompany its plan to “differentiate” between universities in their sponsorship of visas, sector sources suggest.
There are also suggestions that the Home Office has considered an approach to differentiation using the teaching excellence framework under which universities gaining a gold rating are allowed to increase numbers of non-European Union students, those gaining silver are allowed to keep existing numbers, while those given a bronze rating would lose numbers.
If the government is to achieve its goal of reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands”, cutting the number of overseas students – who are included in the net migration tally despite opposition from politicians across all parties and from universities – appears to be inevitable.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, signalled a major change in approach when she told the Conservative Party conference in October that a government consultation “will look at what more we can do to support the best universities and those that stick to the rules, to attract the best talent, while looking at tougher rules for students on lower-quality courses”.
The consultation had been expected this autumn.
Some in the sector believe that a reduction from about 300,000 non-EU students to about 100,000 across UK universities has been modelled by the Home Office as the most severe scenario possible – with the differentiation process offering a way to shrink overall numbers without setting an explicit cap. Such a cut would raise fears among some universities of hugely damaging cuts to their income levels and would raise doubts about the sustainability of some courses heavily reliant on overseas numbers.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, said: “The introduction of a policy of differentiation in visa regimes will have the effect of reducing international student numbers, so it would hardly be a surprise if the Home Office was modelling a significant reduction in numbers.
“This is why the assertions of ministers that there is no cap on student numbers are wearing increasingly thin.”
Tim Blackman, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said that the government “appears to be determined on a number of fronts, from teaching quality to immigration policy, to differentiate the sector by quality measures of dubious validity and reliability. On both fronts, there’s a real danger of damaging the reputation of the UK’s higher education sector generally.”
In terms of differentiating between various organisations in their ability to export, the government “wouldn’t dream of doing that to any other successful sector in the economy, yet that’s what they appear to be contemplating for the higher education sector”, Professor Blackman argued.
The Times reported this week that the Home Office consultation would not be published until the new year. It also said that Ms Rudd “is set to back away from plans to allow only those foreign students who are at Britain’s top universities to work in the UK after they graduate”. But as Ms Rudd’s conference speech covered the whole “student immigration system” rather than just post-study work visas, that leaves the status of her plans unclear.
Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, told MPs this week that “no decisions have been made on tailoring or differentiating non-EU student migration rules on the basis of the quality of the higher education institution, or on how that might be achieved”.
He added that “we want compliance to be a strong feature of our system”, which may be a signal that he believes universities’ visa refusal rates would be a better option for the Home Office to judge “quality”, rather than the TEF.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, called differentiation “a truly absurd idea and is yet more evidence that the Home Office does not understand the importance of international students to our diverse sector, or to the country. Every university has some world-class courses – some universities that lack prestige actually lead the world in one or more fields.”
Times Higher Education asked the Home Office whether it was modelling the impact of a major reduction in overseas student numbers, when the consultation would be published, and whether its plan was to achieve “differentiation” through the TEF.
A Home Office spokesman said in a statement: “We welcome international students who want to come to the UK to study at our world-leading educational institutions, and we are committed to making sure we can attract the brightest and the best to do so. At the same time we must make sure that what we offer brings real benefits to this country.
“We are considering what more we can do to strengthen the system to support the best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent. This is not about pulling up the drawbridge to international students but making sure those students that come here, come to study.”