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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.