Where’s Mr Willetts?

I attended the Guardian HE Summit last week. The first session focussed on internationalisation and predictably attention turned to the Government’s immigration policy. The visa rules are seen as a barrier to the UK competing globally and more than one delegate stated that they are damaging both reputation and recruitment. The perception is that the UK is seen as unwelcoming and this has been bolstered by some of the media reporting overseas. A number of institutions have seen applications from international students fall – a worrying trend given the dependency of some institutions on overseas student fees. Whilst there was general discontent about the policy, the withdrawal of the option for post-qualification work was seen as a particular challenge and it looks like the UK is in danger of repeating others’ mistakes. Australia are reversing the similar policy they had as they saw a fall in applications from international students as, without the ability to work after graduating, studying in Australia became less attractive. The Australian Government recognised the risk to the education sector but until the Home Office do likewise there is a chance of damage to the UK sector.

Today brought the publication of the National Audit Office report into the implementation of Tier 4 of the points based immigration system. The report was critical of UKBA for implementing Tier 4 before key controls were in place. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise to me. The implementation date was fixed and it was clear from my engagement with the implementation team that they were working to a tight budget. In such circumstances it is unlikely that all the required processes and systems will be ready, let alone fully tested. It is an error that is at risk of being repeated. It is policy that grabs the headlines for the politicians and politically expedient deadlines are likely to leave UKBA with short implementation times.

The report notes that universities have a low rate of non-attendance compared with other types of colleges. Again there is little surprise here. International students are key to the university sector and as such universities have invested in additional staff and systems (both IT and procedural) to ensure they comply. So it was disappointing that the coverage on BBC radio this morning made the assumption that students equated to those attending universities. This message is likely to be picked up by others and there will be demands to do something about it. The tough new rules are already being cited in the Government’s response to the report. So again the suggestion is that the UK is unwelcoming to international students. As Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, noted “We must continue to be sensitive to the language we use around immigration and international students. We must ensure that legitimate concerns about immigration do not end up causing irreversible damage to a profoundly successful British export.” However there is little sign that there is the willingness within Government to counter the adverse publicity and protect the successful export business that is UK higher education.

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