Foreign students fear "Britain is closed for business"

The immigration cap is deterring foreign students from applying, says Universites UK head Steve Smit

I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon interviewing the head of Universities UK, Steve Smith, about the future of higher education. You can read the interview in full here but below are some of the highlights.

The immigration cap is deterring foreign students

As a result of the coalition's cap on immigration, Smith told me, other countries fear that Britain is "closed for business".

"On every single international visit I've been on this year it's been the only issue that's been discussed," he said. "I did a big conference at the British Council in Hong Kong, I was with Clegg in Brazil. In both those meetings the question was: "Is Britain closed for business?"... Although we won, the damage inflicted by what was said was significant."

George Osborne boasted in his Budget speech that Britain was now "open for business". Not all of his intended audience, it seems, agreed with him.

Cable has abandoned higher education policy to Willetts

Unusually, the government's recent white paper on higher education was presented to the House of Commons by David Willetts, the universities minister, rather than Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business and the man officially responsible for policy in this area. . Even the Speaker was caught out, mistakenly calling Cable to the dispatch box before Willetts's statement.

Has the Business Secretary subcontracted universities policy to his deputy? "Frankly, it is indeed Willetts that we do all the discussions with," Smith told me. "Our reading of it is that he [Cable], in essence, leaves Willetts to deal with the universities situation."

The government will bail out bankrupt universities

Under the Willetts model, money will follow the student, meaning that some universities dramatically expand, while others shrink. Is it conceivable, I asked Smith, that some institutions will go bankrupt? "To be candid, ministers from all parties talk about the rigours of the market, my experience is that they never live up to it in practice." In some communities, he pointed out, the university is one of the largest, if not the largest, net contributors to the economy.

"I don't think they'll let institutions go bankrupt because I think they'll work out what it would mean for the local economy." Like the banks, the universities, it appears, are too big to fail.

The Scottish problem: "an anomaly that can't stand"

Unlike their English counterparts, Scottish students continue to enjoy free higher education, courtesy of Alex Salmond's SNP administration. However, while Scottish universities are legally obliged to also offer free entrance to European Union students a loophole means that they are able to charge English students fees of up to £9,000 a year. Does Smith think the UK government should intervene?

"That announcement shocked me," he said. "They [the SNP] had made such principled statements in the past about how iniquitous fees were and then they announced that they were going to allow institutions to charge £9,000." He added: "I suspect the government will do something ... It does seem very odd to me that someone can come from France and get the same terms as someone in Scotland but if they come from England they pay £9,000. That seems to me an anomaly that can't stand in the long-run."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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