Universities ignore ‘New Conservative’ agenda ‘at their peril’

MPs’ vision to cut student numbers may signal future direction of party, but experts question its appeal to voters

July 10, 2023
Grand Canyon - February 19 Tourist and visitors taking pictures at Eagle Point at Grand Canyon West Rim, AZ. Fatal falls while taking a pictures are one of the reason people die at Grand Canyon.
Source: iStock

Universities “ignore at their peril” calls by a group of Conservative MPs to cut international student numbers in the UK and bar some institutions from recruiting them, although a Tory former minister warned that such plans would undermine the UK economy.

The New Conservatives, a group of newer backbench MPs on the right of the party, often from “Red Wall” constituencies, attracted headlines by setting out a policy agenda to slash net migration aimed at putting pressure on prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Their agenda included the complete axeing of post-study work visas and blocking the “poorest performing” universities outside the Russell Group from recruiting any overseas students.

Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich and author of the group’s report setting out the ideas, also told The Times that it was not the job of government “to prop up private institutions [universities], many of which haven’t been supplying [the skills] this country needs”, and that many of the group “think possibly too many people have gone to university over the last few years, and I think the future of many universities is in the skills area”.

If the Conservatives were to lose the general election, that would potentially bring in a new leader from the furthest right of the party – with home secretary Suella Braverman certain to be a lead contender – under whom such an agenda might advance.

The New Conservatives’ agenda also continues a shift in education policy ideas to match the Tories’ turn to non-graduate voters since the Brexit vote.

Diana Beech, the London Higher chief executive and former policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said that while “many in the sector may disagree with the New Conservatives’ proposals, we should ignore them at our peril”.

“Just as the development of the free speech bill has shown us, issues to do with the so-called culture wars cannot be brushed under the carpet for long, and unless the sector comes up with a plan to add extra assurances to international recruitment practices and show the nation it is delivering the skills our economy needs, we can expect this criticism and scepticism to grow across the party divides, and particularly in those areas lesser served by HE,” Dr Beech said.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the Conservative former universities minister, highlighted recent research showing that international students benefited “all parts of the country” by an average of £58 million per constituency.

“It’s clear that implementing such proposals would come at a massive cost and fly in the face of other government objectives,” Lord Johnson said.

“They would put a major dent in the levelling-up agenda, undermine one of the few globally competitive sectors of the UK economy and destabilise the finances of dozens of universities central to the country’s claims to being a ‘science superpower’.”

The comments made by Mr Hunt – a graduate of the universities of Manchester and Oxford – suggest that the New Conservatives see electoral benefit in hostility to higher education institutions among the voters his wing of the party seeks to court – but things might not be that clear-cut.

Jess Lister, an associate director in the education practice at political consultancy Public First, said its previous polling “shows that the public do back apprenticeships over university places – but only for other people’s children. When respondents were asked what they wanted their own children to do when they left school, the most popular response was for them to go get a degree.”

She added: “There is a political risk, therefore, in assuming that an overall stated preference for apprenticeships translates into an acceptance of reducing the number of young people going to university – particularly when the reality of doing so starts to impact the opportunities for Conservative voters’ own families.”

Dr Beech said that with surveys showing that voters “are not worried about international students and consider them a positive form of immigration, all the New Conservatives are doing with this plan is showing they are out of step with the nation”.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (3)

Promulgating ideas like this will make the Conservatives even more unelectable, not just amongst academics but with anyone who believes in aspiration, opportunity, levelling up... or in helping people from less developed nations gain the skills they need to aid their homelands.
The worry is that overseas students often don't return to their homelands, but use study as a route to long-term or permanent migration.
Which does not matter as long as they are gainfully employed. The availability of benefits is the only reason that this is an issue. Prior to the welfare state, the UK would take anybody since they either contributed or starved. As long as people accept the values and way of life in this country, I see no problem with well-qualified people staying.