My impression of the debate over international students, which has risen to the boil in recent months, has been of two sides speaking different languages. The universities repeatedly present the same arguments, and the government takes no notice whatsoever.
What’s at stake, roughly speaking, is government support for universities in their recruitment of international students. Numbers boomed for a while, and the fees became an important part of many institutional budgets; however, tougher visa regulations and a tightening of post-study work opportunities have led more recently to declines in numbers. While governments of other Western countries are doing all they can to attract international students, the UK government has spent several years sending out contrary signals.
The response of universities boils down to two arguments. The first is economic: pages and pages of facts and figues have been produced to demonstrate the importance of international students to regional and national economies. The second is one of definition: that students are not migrants, and therefore should be exempt from the government’s efforts to restrict immigration. Reclassify international students and they can, at a stroke, become good rather than bad.
So why aren’t these arguments working?
- This country’s had enough of experts
Michael Gove’s infamous trashing of expert opinion might arguably be set aside as part of the prevailing lunacy of the referendum campaign. But it might also be seen as a glimpse into a mind-set that is deeply sceptical of so much of what academics value so highly: evidence, research, reason. This, after all, is a government that tried to ban academics from ‘lobbying’ it on matters of public interest.
An IPPR report published last week has demonstrated how flawed evidence has been used to exaggerate the problems posed on the one hand by ‘bogus’ colleges, and on the other hand by students over-staying on student-visas. Indeed there are suggestions that senior figures, including the prime minister, may have been overly swayed by dated, impressionistic and anecdotal evidence. Nor has there been much acknowledgement that, to the extent that there was a problem, it may now have been addressed.
I note, in passing, that Mrs May’s press release on grammar schools (et al.) last week made just one reference to research: the banal statement, ‘Research shows that prior attainment is one of the biggest factors determining access to university’. Relying on a statement of the obvious as ‘research’ while ignoring the real stuff that stacks up against their policies speaks volumes about this government’s treatment of experts. It doesn’t matter how well we make the case, they’re just not that bothered.
- You don’t know how lucky you are
It’s deceptively easy to assume that the Tories – traditionally the party of big business – will obviously be swayed by economic logic. Yet, as we’ve learned this year, the Tories are also prepared to sacrifice economic stability and prosperity for the sake of various ill-defined ideals. This government is perfectly – staggeringly – capable of looking at irrefutable economic data, shrugging its collective shoulders and turning away.
What we’re told instead is that universities should ‘develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students’. While the income from international student fees has unquestionably become a major part of university budgets, this position is to apply the economic modelling of cod-fishing to the market for education. There is no effort to demonstrate unsustainability – let alone any acknowledgement that educating students might be kind of a valuable thing to do – just a vague hunch that it’s time to repurpose the fleet.
And I sense something more. There’s perhaps a feeling in government circles that universities have dodged austerity – in part because of international students – and that a dose of it would do us good. Hence the symbolic significance attached in many statements to the pay of vice-chancellors, positioned as fat cats riding high on the back of an unsustainable resources boom. Why not teach them a thing or two?
- Education, education, education
Finally – and most importantly of all – I detect a fundamental divergence of views on the role of universities. The argument in favour of recruiting international students positions universities as both key parts of the national economy, and participants within global systems.
But we’re dealing with a government that, in one of its first acts, shifted higher education from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, to the Department of Education. It’s also a government that – again, on the basis of flimsy evidence – seems determined to believe that universities care too little about the quality of education.
So a view that seems to me to have gained traction is that universities need to concentrate more on their roles within the domestic education system and less on their positions within global networks and markets. At the end of a summer in which Britain has turned decisively inwards, this is one almost inevitable manifestation of what the Tories are perceiving as the national mood. In this climate, will Mrs May really lose any sleep over the fact that UK universities are already starting to slide in global rankings? I wouldn’t bet on it.
We have to keep making the arguments. We also have to keep demonstrating how education in British universities – for home and international students alike – is changing lives and transforming the world. But, judged by the standards of evidence-based argument that any researcher would accept as essential, this is no ordinary argument.