Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How Tory higher education policy isn’t working

Britain needs its higher education international graduates to stay post-study – Brexit makes the need for change pressing, writes Richard Angell

The United Kingdom’s higher education system is among the world best. It is the finest tool in Britain’s soft power diplomacy and the graduates it churns out will sign more international trade deals that Liam Fox’s department could shake a stick at. It is itself one of our best exports.

However, Britain is losing market share among international students. Since David Cameron’s odious ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands’ pledge, we have been lifting the drawbridge of talent and trade. The draconian reign of Theresa May at the Home Office only made this worse – the additional visa and access loop holes might not have been a formal part of the ‘hostile environment’ policy but it certainly left one. Not only is this approach wrong and immoral, it is bizarre and counterintuitive when global demand for higher education is increasing exponentially and our competitors are rising to the challenge and making entry easier, not harder.

Brexit makes this policy increasingly economically illiterate and a significant deterrent to longer-term growth. Almost as if they did not believe their own arguments in the campaign, there is a real absence in this debate of the Brexiteers who rebuked claims of xenophobia with promises that leaving the European Union was to ‘go global’ and embrace the commonwealth again. Priti Patel was ahead of this implausible claim and is nowhere to be seen now it has been found wanting.

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Yesterday, the migration advisory committee published the findings of its special inquiry into international students. It found categorically that there were ‘clear benefits’ to the UK; higher education in particular.

However, as one very senior crossbench peer said to me having heard its conclusions, and assuming pressure from ministers, ‘the committee rather pulled their punches’. They concluded that taking international students out of the government’s cap would be both ‘technically difficult’ and make ‘almost no difference’. If this is correct, then it must also be true that a more open approach could be taken without massive net number impacts but high economic ones.

The migration advisory committee did argue that those who come from abroad to do postgraduate study – masters and PhDs – should be given the right to remain post-study. But, unlike the United States and Canada, not for all students. The representative body Universities UK has long campaigned for all students to be able to stay for two years as standard. Visa overstays have been clamped down on – and so we have the ability to offer more generous stay periods, so why will the government not do the right thing?

More importantly, why should Labour people care?

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First, it is the right thing to do. An open country – to ideas, people and exchange – is the only future for a country like ours. The English language is a huge asset but if we are going to let the US, Canada and Australia reap the benefits, not us, we only have ourself to blame.

Second, once it is lost, it will be hard to regain. The UK higher education sector has done well to stand its ground – even grow moderately – despite such a hostile government policy environment, but that cannot last forever.

Finally, international students provide a massive subsidy to UK students. If Labour believes and intends to honour its free education pledge, then it is going to need a growing number of fee paying international students to ensure the policy is affordable. £12bn per annum is already costly, it is unlikely to be the true cost in itself, if universities have declining incomes from other sources they are going to pile these of the Exchequer where they can. With this massive subsidy it was already Labour’s most expensive single policy.

This policy is wrong, reckless and reactionary. It is time to stop pulling our punches.


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell


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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

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