Dear UK universities,
You want an unequivocal welcome to be extended to international students? So do I. As a Conservative member of the House of Lords, I’m delighted to support you, as you know, in debates and in votes. I line up behind your calls for the government to be constructive over international students, and to remove them from the net migration figures that it is trying so hard to reduce. But you could do much more in your own cause.
The Home Office can be a difficult beast to work with. It can seem defensive, prickly, hard to move. It thinks that the rest of us should bend our lives to fit its mission. It has been like that for a long time; don’t expect it to change. It has a hard and important job to do, and you will get much further with it if you offer it support, rather than demands.
Last summer, the Home Office announced a scheme under which it would liberalise visa rules on a pilot basis for master’s students at four English universities – Imperial College London and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Bath. This was a most encouraging development, and it did not deserve the spoiled-child response that it received from so many universities. Your rebuff will have been most keenly felt by those officials most inclined to reach out to you.
Trust between the Home Office and universities fell apart after the 2010 general election. Rebuilding it is a slow and painstaking process. You should not be objecting that a few of you have something that the rest do not, but should each be looking for small ways to build small islands of trust, developing a network of personal relationships. I would be happy to help.
You want to secure (at least) the present level of European academic collaboration post-Brexit? Put yourselves in the driving seat and build a post-Brexit collaboration plan.
Much as you might like the government to do this for you, European universities and their institutions are your friends, not theirs. What is home territory for you is terra incognita for ministers, and they have a host of more contentious Brexit-related problems to solve. Why should either side in the negotiations expend energy in opposing any agreement you can reach with European universities?
Take a lead in other things, too. Accumulate yourselves some credit.
You keep reminding us, quite rightly, of universities’ contribution to the UK’s soft power, at a time when we have great need of a strong place in the world. But where are our top universities in the government’s landmark GREAT Britain advertising campaign, aimed at showcasing “the best of what the UK has to offer to inspire the world and encourage people to visit, do business, invest and study in the UK”. Far too many are there in the British Council’s alumni awards but not in the mainstream. Their wholehearted participation would be immensely appreciated.
What about putting your incomparable alumni networks to work for the UK? I got a firm put-down on that one when I asked about it during scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Bill earlier this year. “They’re for our own commercial benefit only,” one top university told me.
Ask yourselves what more could you do together to support the British Council, for instance, or to reform the system of international recruitment agents.
You have a great deal to offer, and we, in this turbulent passage, have great need of your offering it. I do not doubt that the government will respond in kind.
I am conscious that I am asking proudly independent institutions to contemplate collective action, or at least to all do the same thing separately. But I know that you can do it. You have just produced a superb report, via Universities UK, on violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.
Whatever you did to make that possible, let’s have more of it.
I am conscious too that I am asking you to get behind a project – Brexit – that most of you dislike. That’s House of Lords pragmatism for you. We are where we are. The question now is: what works best from here?
Lord Lucas is a Conservative peer in the House of Lords.