‘Universities lack the lobbying clout to exempt students from migration target’, The Conversation, 27 August 2014.

A recent joint report by British Future and Universities UK has criticised the Coalition for imposing unnecessary limits on the numbers of foreign students allowed into the country. Its authors say government immigration policy that attracts “the brightest and the best” has managed to hobble one of Britain’s most successful export industries – higher education.

Most people, despite their desire to see overall immigration reduced, apparently do not think that including students in the government’s net migration target makes much sense.

In research just published, James Hampshire and I looked at why the decision to include students in the net migration target was made, how it was implemented, and the relative failure of the higher education lobby to do very much about it.

The decision

Net migration is the difference between immigration and emigration. If the Tories’ pledge to reduce it from the hundreds to the tens of thousands was to be redeemed, then the Coalition had precious few options.

Since emigration is not something any government can do very much about, and since the same goes for the entry of EU citizens, it was bound to focus its attention on reducing non-EU immigration. It could do this in three areas: work-related migration, family migration, and foreign students.

Although it did not impose an actual cap on international students, the government included them in the overall net migration target because they made up such a significant proportion of the numbers coming in and staying on. Indeed, not to have done so would arguably have rendered that target pretty meaningless.

And although people might tell pollsters they have no objection to international students, politicians and officials know that in real life, when those same people look around them, they can’t tell who is a student and who isn’t. All they see is more foreigners – and many of them don’t like it.

Rules tightened

To implement the policy, in April 2012 the Coalition abolished the Tier 1 post-study work route, under which foreign students could stay and look for work after finishing their studies. New ruleswere introduced that require foreign students who wish to stay in the UK after graduation to acquire a skilled job offer from an employer.

The government also increased the financial and language requirements for overseas students, and increased the restrictions on certain students’ rights to work or bring dependent relatives. In addition, there has been an increase in scrutiny of institutions sponsoring foreign students.

Failure of the HE lobby

The UK’s higher education institutions have been unable to do much about all this. They have fallen far short of the successes business has enjoyed in obtaining significant concessions to work-related migration restrictions.

According to senior officials we interviewed, Universities UK and the education sector as a whole are less used to lobbying. Institutions are not yet as effective as business at doing so, often achieving publicity but little leverage. For instance, the sector has not persuaded the Home Office to task the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to look into the issue of students in the net migration cap and make recommendations.

Notwithstanding criticisms from parliamentary committees, there has been relatively little pressure and no organised campaign from MPs sitting in what are sometimes thought of as “university seats”. This is partly because they come from different parties, and partly because it is not always easy to identify a particular MP as the representative of a university or student population, because they may be spread across several parliamentary constituencies.

There is also little evidence of higher education lobbyists ruthlessly targeting their efforts at either Conservative MPs, or at those Tories in the Number Ten Policy Unit charged with writing the party’s next manifesto.

Brushing off criticisms

While statistics indicate substantial falls in the number of study visas being issued to foreign students, the fall has been concentrated in the further education and language school sectors, not in the university sector.

This, alongside the fact that there is no explicit, discrete cap on international students, has made it easier for the government to brush off criticisms, even when they come from within – most obviously from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and business secretary Vince Cable.

It’s worth emphasising that bureaucracy and both inter- and intra-party politics play a big part in all this too. Put bluntly: BIS is nowhere near as big a beast as the Home Office in the Whitehall jungle; Cable is a Lib Dem, not a Tory; and Theresa May and David Cameron both have an awful lot invested in being seen to be doing their very best to hit their net migration target by 2015. Anyone hoping to see students removed from that target, then, had better not hold their breath.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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