Comment: Tory immigration policy is killing our higher education system

Unless you’ve been away enjoying some sunshine recently (and I do take that to mean you’d have been absent for a long time) you wouldn’t have been able to avoid the immigration debate which risks jeopardising Britain’s position as a leading international education destination.

The situation has been somewhat self-inflicted. Historically, British governments had never been that interested in the international education sector. It was only because of the industry’s growth that they have started to pay it any attention at all. In fact, the more successful the sector has become, the more issue the government, or certain sections of the government, began to take with it.

Immigration has remained high on the political agenda for years and became a carrot with which to tempt the electorate to vote Labour towards the end of the party’s 12 year reign. The party introduced the fourth tier of the immigration system in 2009 to ‘tighten’ controls on the number of students coming to study in the UK. This was in response to accusations that bogus colleges had been set up solely to bring foreigners into the country under the pretence they were students. The UK Border Agency quickly took action and shut down a small number of ‘schools’ to choke this backdoor route to immigration that was being exploited by a few individuals. The closure of bogus colleges was viewed as an appropriate response and welcomed by industry.

Since then we’ve seen the election of a new government bent on reducing net migration from ‘the hundreds to the tens of thousands’. It too is desperate to prove to the public that it’s no slouch when it comes to immigration and has followed up on Labour’s policies with a series of poorly informed decisions designed to cut the numbers of international students in the UK. The very small number of bogus colleges in the sector had been dealt with but the new coalition felt the way to meet its immigration targets was to attack a legitimate demographic of genuine students hoping to study in the UK, gain a small amount of work experience and then leave.

Research has shown that international students are the group the British public is least concerned with when discussing immigration – perhaps because research has also shown that the vast majority leave the country after completing their studies and any associated work experience. The government claims it wants to attract the ‘brightest and best’ from around the world. Indeed, various ministers, including the prime minister, have been busy with public relations exercises for the UK’s higher education sector, making speeches in emerging economies like Brazil and China, expressing how our universities are open for business – and yet they still fail to separate international students from the migration debate.

Damian Green et al struggle to grasp the fact that international students shouldn’t even be included in net migration numbers – the US counts them as ‘non-immigrants’; Canada counts them as ‘non-immigrants’; Australia counts them as ‘non-immigrants’. These countries are our main competitors in the international education market and just as they’re relaxing their visa systems to attract more students from emerging Bric [Brazil, Russia, India, China] economies, we’re tightening ours to damaging effect – Office of National Statistics (ONS) figures show net migration has remained steady over the last two quarters at 250,000, but student visa applications have dropped.

Universities are fully aware of what’s happening and a number of chancellors wrote to a national newspaper recently expressing their concern at current immigration policy. The new visa system rules require universities to act as micro-immigration centres and are seriously affecting the international education industry that supplies around 40 per cent of the international student intake into universities each year. Now this equates to big money. Without the lucrative fees from these students, most universities would struggle to remain open and almost all would have to reduce the number of domestic students they enrol – even £9,000 a year doesn’t cover the costs unfortunately.

What really hurts the international education industry and its higher education partners are the new sponsorship rules. I find it ironic that a Conservative party historically inclined to encourage growth and innovation in business would deliberately introduce a policy to stifle enterprise – especially in a period of economic austerity.

Let me break the business process down into simple terms. If you want to start a new school to educate international students then you need to be able to issue Confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS). You cannot issue CAS unless you’re on the UKBA register of sponsor list, hold highly trusted sponsor status (HTS) and have educational oversight from either the Quality Assurance Agency – the same body that assesses and accredits universities in this country – Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

But to get educational oversight you need to have been trading for at least 12 months, otherwise the agency won’t inspect, let alone accredit you, and to secure HTS status you need to already be on the register of sponsors – which takes twelve to eighteen months. Existing institutions can use their HTS status or educational oversight to support other branches, but effectively the government has restrained the development and growth of a valuable sector; a sector vital to our universities and one which employs tens of thousands of people across the country.

The results of this have already been felt. Independent think-tank CentreForum detailed the high profile closure of Cavendish College London (CCL) in its January report ‘Tier 4 tears: how government student visa controls are destroying the private HE sector’. CCL fell victim to the government’s decision to close the post-study work route. This was a two year working visa extension which allowed the student to secure experience in industry before returning home and the decision to close it flew in the face of the overwhelming feedback it received on its own stakeholder consultation. The college was established in 1985 and turned over around £4 million a year, but the decision on post study work visas hit its student intake so badly that revenue halved and it closed in December 2011.

It is clear that the Tier 4 system is ineffectual and damaging. If the government is intent on controlling immigration then it is obvious that targeting international students and penalising the education sector is not the way to do it. Net migration levels have remained steady but applications for student visas have dropped. Chancellors and higher education bodies like Universities UK cry out in protest at the changes while the government’s own home affairs committee warns the Home Office that conservative estimates for lost income would total £3.6 billion over the next four years, before being turned away and told to revise its figures by a home secretary so determined to continue the cull that she seems happy to ignore the actual evidence.

There is not a lot of money sloshing around in the government purse and the HE sector could be irreparably damaged if this mess is not sorted quickly. The solution is to follow our competitors’ leads and remove international students from the immigration debate altogether. We can then move the conversation on international students away from the talks of visas and funding and instead concentrate on the higher education sector for which this country is famous.

Michael Cornes is operations director at international education provider Study Group.

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