The idea of the university in the Conservative Party manifesto*

On the evidence of their election manifesto, universities make Theresa May’s Conservatives uneasy. Something about the modern university worries the authors of this document, as they pick away at higher education policy in one section after another. While Labour’s manifesto mentions universities only in relation to fees, it feels like there’s a lot more at stake for the Tories.

So I’d like to consider what’s troubling them, and also what they propose instead, by dwelling on some of the manifesto’s language.

 

‘We will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards’

The curious thing about this sentence is not the commitment – hugely disappointing though it is – but the justification. What does it mean?

In technical terms, David Morris identifies two alternatives: ‘standards of visa compliance or standards of quality in higher education’. It’s also effectively meaningless; who’s asking for lower standards, of anything? But there’s perhaps something more fundamental, even philosophical at work here as well. It’s an anxious sentence. It has the tone of a head-teacher fretting that her pupils’ are being distracted by the latest social media fad.

British universities are accustomed to working in a global higher education network. Their ideal would be a world with frictionless movement of students, researchers and ideas. Mass movement of students is a good thing for the exporting country since it raises skill levels, and for the importing country since it generates income. And we talk about a ‘fourth age of research’, in which international collaboration makes our work more effective and visible.

But that’s not the way this manifesto sees the world. It wants the UK to be special, even as it struggles to put its finger on how. This is a document, after all, that positions the UK as a ‘champion of free trade’: using a metaphor from medieval chivalry to position a former colonial power as distinctive in endorsing a value that might otherwise appear to be all about international equality.

So ‘maintaining standards’, I’d suggest, is about having a little bit of globalization while maintaining British universities as a little bit insular. It is of a piece with the ongoing commitment to ensuring that international students return home after graduating, and that they pay more money towards the cost of the National Health Service. It says: you can be here, but just don’t affect us in any discernible way.

 

‘we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole’

In practical terms, one might ask: why on earth would they want to rip this hornets’ nest right off the branch, immediately after passing the Higher Education and Research Bill? The commitment is made in the context of a vision of a revived ‘technical’ education sector, yet it’s another statement that betrays more fundamental anxieties about the university.

There was a moment, not so very long ago, when vice-chancellors fantasized about freedom from state control. The state, it was said, was an unreliable partner. The fees settlement meant that primary educational contracts were now between students and providers, while research councils and independent funding bodies further served to keep the state at arm’s length.

But this election’s Tories don’t like this. Moving higher education into the Department for Education was symbolically important in this regard, indicating a perception that universities are fundamentally not independent businesses but part of a national educational system. This manifesto is a record of their scrabbling around in the dark looking for new levers to pull.

Not that all their ideas are uninteresting. There’s a proposal to ‘build up the investment funds of our universities’, enabling them ‘to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research’. But there’s also a reiteration of the Industrial Strategy commitment to a more interventionist approach to research funding. And there’s the controversial commitment that universities must involve themselves in secondary education: ‘We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools.’

Hence that ‘major review of funding’. Maybe differential fees according to an institution’s graduates’ record of repayment? Who knows? Maybe they don’t know themselves. It might never happen. But it’s important as a statement of authority: the state is in charge.

 

‘It is why we want to see universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy’

Universities argue that global recognition and local influence are symbiotic. This is powerfully stated in University College London’s strapline: ‘London’s global university’. But the Tories – the declared party of the ‘somewheres’, sceptical of the ‘citizens of the world – are suspicious.

Hence the free schools and academies. They also want to ensure that universities create ‘opportunities for local people, especially those from ordinary working backgrounds’ – frankly, the HE equivalent of a commitment to the family. But there’s more: new technical colleges will be linked with ‘leading’ universities (a phrase that, as Andrew McGettigan has noted, might leave the ‘non-leading’ post-92s feeling painted into a corner – most likely the Tories envisage some repurposing); and the relocation of government departments and agencies, which will supposedly create further opportunities for local development.

 

The Conservative Party manifesto moulds an idea of the university from the clay of British nationalism. It’s a university of ‘high standards’ and Nobel laureates, recognized in global league tables while maintaining an arm’s-length approach to the messy business of globalization. It’s a university that can be turned to address government priorities, from battery technology research to training more doctors, at the flick of a policy switch.

At one moment the manifesto declares a commitment to ‘enable top scientists to work here’. While perfectly in accord with its idea of the university, this statement is telling in its assumption that top scientists will actually want to buy into the Tories’ insular, containable, malleable model of a British university. They – like international students, like existing academics in UK universities, indeed like all those other potential migrants scuttling their way through the netherworld of Tory policy – may very well decide to go elsewhere.

* A version of this piece (ruthlessly stripped of some of its best lines) was published by The Guardian HE blog.

Advertisements

The international student debate: we’re talking different languages

My impression of the debate over international students, which has risen to the boil in international-students-uukrecent 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?

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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?

 

  1. 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.

International students: an apology

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the government is planning a ‘new immigration crackdown on student visas’. This is Telegraph imagebased on the premise – loopy as it is – that students are migrants. And the Tories remain as committed as ever to reducing migration – even while they merrily jettison many the other planks of their platform.

This, it’s worth stressing, is unrelated to Brexit. Indeed many people had hoped that, since Brexit is likely to cause pain in terms of EU students and the precarious state of the Erasmus student-exchange scheme, the government might see the light and finally decouple international students from immigration statistics. That would not only be logical – they’re coming to study, not to stay – it would help just about everybody.

Instead we’re told that ‘The Prime Minister has backed calls to restrict student visas so that only the brightest and best can come to study at reputable universities in Britain’. At a time when tens of thousands of international students are graduating, many of whom have worked desperately hard in an alien system just to pass, that’s a lovely little piece of elitism. Their younger siblings have options.

 

An apology: I was an international student

I was an international student in this country, spending just over three years in Cambridge, 1988-92. I came here because of the reputation of British universities, the quality of the research resources, and the critical mass of like-minded researchers. The experience wasn’t perfect, by any means, but on the whole it set me up for life.

According to The Telegraph, Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, ‘believes assessments of the economic impact of foreign students should not overlook the added strain they place on housing and public services.’ Well, Mr Timothy, all I can do is apologize. I went to the doctor three or four times, I cycled on the roads of Cambridge, I drank its limey water. I even – and I’m desperately sorry, but what could I do? – yes, I even shat in its toilets. But I went home again, honest; for my immigration seven years later, I can only apologize again.

But Cambridge was paid for the education and resources it provided, and I paid for the BSE-laden beef and ropey East Anglian beer I consumed. Even in my day, international students were clearly contributing a huge amount to the economy of Cambridge. And I contributed, to the best of my antipodean abilities, to the cultural and intellectual life of the university. The people with whom I lived and studied form, today, an impressive global network in terms of success and influence.

 

This is serious: the benefits of internationalised campuses

Today, the benefits of international students in the UK are huge. The UK stands as an academic superpower, with sixteen of our universities ranked in the global top 100. That’s not simply a product of international students, by any means, but it says a lot about the global outlook and ambition of British universities. And there’s nothing natural or preordained about that list, just as there’s nothing natural today about the UK’s status as the world’s fifth biggest economy. These things take an awful lot of work.international figs

In economic terms, the value of international students was measured by a  Universities UK Report published last month. The benefits, in terms of revenues to universities and expenditure off-campus, are clear. In my own town, our taxi-drivers benefit, my hairdresser benefits; the whole economy of Exeter has been boosted by the growth of international students in recent years. Yes, international students use ‘housing and public services’, but it is absurd to present them as a drain on the country’s resources. Precisely the contrary is true.

And it’s not just about the economy, stupid. Universities have grown intellectually as a result of the contributions of international students. They bring expertise and endeavour to research labs, and fresh perspectives to seminar rooms. They stretch and challenge home students. In cultural terms, their influence is also positive, helping to make our campuses more outward-looking, globally-engaged environments.

After they graduate, the vast majority of international students return to their homelands, and flourish. They may not all be – with apologies to Mrs May – ‘the best and the brightest’, but they will benefit from their education, maintain the networks they established as students, and remember their formative experiences in the UK. And many will, in due course, move into positions of authority: in business, government, the arts, academia, and so forth.

This is ‘soft power’ at work. The UK is undeniably good at soft power; indeed it topped a recent global soft-power league-table, measuring indices across areas of government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise, and ‘digital’. There’s nothing natural about this list, either, and our reputation will doubtless take a hit post-Brexit, regardless of how well those negotiations are managed. So it seems to me extraordinary that, at the end of a week in which the UK parliament committed to spending about £40 billion on the hardest of redundant hard-power accessories – the Trident nuclear defence capability – we should choose to shoot ourselves in the feet on soft power.

 

In the post-Brexit weeks, the non-British financial centres have been busy courting companies currently based in London. The mayor of Frankfurt described himself as ‘weeping and laughing’ simultaneously. And so it will be, now, in the field of higher education. University leaders in Australia and the Netherlands, among other ambitious globally-engaged countries, will regret the damage the UK threatens to do to itself. They respect us; many of them were educated here. But nor will they waste time attracting the students our government seems so desperate to make feel unwelcome in the UK.

So, from one head of department, an apology, for these unfortunate signals from above. In our universities and towns, international students: we value you.