It’s time to stop treating students as migrants

by David Hannay | 10.01.2017

There is plenty wrong with the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill which begins its detailed passage in through the House of Lords this week. Properly safeguarding the autonomy of universities and ensuring that the new coordinating body for UK research (UKRI) devotes sufficient resources and support to innovation as well as to research are among the areas which will come under scrutiny and are likely to need amendment. But one major gap in the Bill is the total absence of any provisions to protect universities and research establishments from the likely serious negative consequences of Brexit – not too surprising perhaps as the Bill was originally drafted and tabled before 23 June, but indefensible now that, as we are urged to accept, Brexit means Brexit.

The first remedy for this lacuna is to put a clear and explicit duty on the Secretary of State for Education to encourage international students to come to this country to attend higher education establishments, not as the government has so often been doing in recent years to discourage them from doing so by imposing new and onerous immigration rules. Now that the problem of dodgy language schools has been largely resolved and that such figures as exist show that only a tiny percentage (as low as 1%) of students are illegally overstaying their period of study, there is no case for further handicapping one of Britain’s major invisible exports and a prolific source of future soft power.

Above all it is time to stop treating Higher Education students for public policy purposes as economic migrants. This is an absurdity. These students bring substantial resources into the country to pay for their fees and living expenses; and they do not compete for jobs but rather create them, since it is their continued presence here which has helped universities to expand in recent years and to achieve the degree of excellence which puts the UK second only to the US in international league tables.

Because students from other EU countries are a significant proportion of these overseas students there is a real risk that new immigration rules to be introduced as part of Brexit will damage that flow. But that would be a singularly self-inflicted wound, since there is no evidence that public concern over immigration relates to these higher education students. Why therefore subject higher education students with offers of places at our universities to any new rules and restrictions at all? Similar considerations apply to academic staff, many of whom also come from other EU countries. Why put obstacles in the way of their retaining or accepting offers of academic posts when they are so obviously highly skilled?

As to research, the UK earns a great deal more than it pays into EU research projects and programmes. Moreover, the networks of cooperation which such programmes have helped to establish mean that they are worth considerably more to our universities and research establishments than the simple amount of the grants from EU funds. All this will be at risk if we pull out of the Single Market and if we fail to negotiate comparable structures to enable this cooperation to continue. So it surely makes sense for both the government and UKRI to be tasked to do all they can to avoid that happening?

Will the government be willing to fill those lacunae in the Bill? That is far from certain. They have shown no inclination to do so as the Bill passed through the House of Commons. Should they do so? That surely is a no-brainer.

Edited by Hugo Dixon