Why is the government so anti foreign students?

Our higher education will suffer

The government’s behaviour in its decision to revoke London Metropolitan’s ability to sponsor international students and the resulting chaos created for genuine students, is a devastating blow to the international reputation of our higher education sector and its capacity to act as an engine for growth. Given that UK higher education (HE) is our seventh largest export industry, worth £8bn a year, with a huge capacity for growth, this is incredibly counter-productive.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) is tasked with the important job of looking after the flow of student immigration. We fully support the government’s attempts to tackle bogus colleges and stop immigration fraud, and that does require tough enforcement of the rules. But on this occasion it seems the UKBA’s processes have caught too many legitimate international students in their net.

Part of the problem is the very different approaches to process and regulation that are taken by the UKBA and the HE sector. UKBA rules change often, with little or no consultation. Generally speaking they come into force straightaway, and usually without a great deal of publicity. Bulky new versions of guidance are frequently issued without any signposting as to what has been changed. UKBA have changed their rules 11 times since 2010. Scrambling to keep up with this, universities tell me they dedicate ever more resources to ensure compliance with the rules, but still feel perpetually on the back foot.

This approach to process is flawed and sits particularly awkwardly in UK HE. For example, our universities are by-and-large responsible for their own regulation of quality. Internal processes to assure quality are far reaching in every institution. The Quality Assurance Agency rarely finds severe problems in its external review process because it works with universities at every stage to ensure they are complying with good practice and fulfilling their duties to students. In contrast, UKBA does not have the same level of engagement with universities, and certainly not at every stage of the process, thus creating a risk that in terms of compliance with the rules and guidance, something might slip through the net.

We do not have all the detail about London Met’s case – no doubt we will learn more once the judicial review begins. But process issues have been affecting the whole sector. At a recent meeting with a Vice-Chancellor, I was told that UKBA officers asked for a set of student data to be produced within 20 minutes of the request being made. The data was held across 3 different computer systems, to ensure its integrity and prevent hacking, so producing it as quickly as requested was simply not possible. Given that the data existed, was robust, and once it was checked was found to be fully in compliance with UKBA rules, this should have been a straightforward matter to resolve. But in fact it caused a huge amount of difficulty and took up an inordinate amount of time.

The case of London Met should draw attention to UKBA’s counter-productive process and the havoc it is now causing in UK universities and for the thousands of legitimate students now caught up in it all who are being forced to find a new university or face deportation. Placing such a burden on these students is unfair, unjust and defies all reason.

While it makes sense to prevent any new international students coming to London Met, the government should recognise that the position of current, legitimate London Met students, who are here legally and have done nothing wrong, requires a different approach. In this special case, it seems that it would take much less effort to find some way of enabling them to carry on at London Met and finish their course, rather than establish an emergency mechanism to find them a new place. Finding new accommodation and the process of moving itself will also be a costly affair, piling further financial pressure on those who have already paid so much for the privilege of a UK higher education.

Even before this episode, NUS published research that showed that students from outside the EU were increasingly likely not to recommend studying in the UK to their friends and family. Worse still, more and more legitimate international students are feeling that the UK is now a hostile environment for them.

The NUS research shows that students want to come to the UK, because our universities are seen as world-class and carry a premium that is almost unrivalled in the global employment market. It is vital that we do nothing further to jeopardise this position, put at risk an £8bn export industry and ruin the lives of students who thought they were coming to the UK for something better than this.

Shabana Mahmood is the Shadow Minister for Higher Education and the MP for Birmingham Ladywood

A protest outside the Home Office

Shabana Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.