In order to reduce net migration, the Home Office wants to curtail the number of international students coming to the UK. Amber Rudd told the Tory Party conference that:
We will also look for the first time at whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.
I’m passionately committed to making sure our world-leading institutions can attract the brightest and the best. But a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help.
So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses. (Rudd, 2016)
This is a strange argument; we know that very few students overstay – we even know that the Home Office knows that. Automatic post-study visas have been removed, and the granting of such remaining visas under tiers 1 and 2 is difficult. Students come, and the majority go back, with the UK controlling (in the most part) those that stay.
The Home Secretary introduced the notion that there might be a category of lower quality courses and providers that might not be eligible to sponsor international students. We have seen a pilot scheme launched by the Home Office to allow an easing of parts of the procedure – limited to Bath, Cambridge, Imperial and Oxford universities. The Sunday Times carried a story that hinted this scheme might be expanded to all the Russell Group:
The government is considering allowing overseas students who attend one of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group to work in Britain after graduating. Those at other universities might be required to return home.
But here’s the Home Office’s problem. They cannot justify limiting aspects of sponsoring students on the basis of membership of a mission group. Although the Russell Group has done a tremendous job in tying the notions of ‘elite’ and ‘leading’ to their membership, this cannot stack up. Better research is done in some depts outside the RG than inside, there are more selective courses outside, there are better employment outcomes etc etc. The differences between what David Watson called the ‘Bottom Russellers’ and other universities may be slight. Just look at the inclusion of Bath in the Home Office’s pilot.
We know that the Home Office has used metrics to determine whether a provider can sponsor students. Originally they had wanted to differentiate providers into Highly Trusted, A and B sponsors – but this fell apart, both as their data couldn’t really separate sponsors, and they lost confidence in all the sponsors who weren’t highly trusted. The Sponsors also adapted to meet the HTS requirements, although they continue to live in fear of these metrics. Importantly, they don’t reflect whether a university is good, but whether it runs the sponsorship system well. Amber Rudd says she wants tougher rules for ‘lower quality courses’.
Here’s the Home Office’s problem; where they will hit my favourite paradox. The Home Office needs a way of deciding what is a good course (or a good university), which if is to have any impact on student numbers cannot simply be every course in the UK. The DfE have inherited the course designation system from BIS – a system that determines whether a course is good enough for the government to pay its fees (through loans in England). The Home Office could use the TEF – but as David Morris’ analysis shows this could have some major problems – what if LSE or Kings didn’t get Silver? Can they really use the English TEF to drive UK-wide immigration policy? What about specialist PG institutions? etc etc
This will leave the Home Office with their own special version of the Sorites Paradox. Here’s Simon Blackburn’s explanation of it:
One grain of sand is not a heap. And for any number n, if n grains of sand are not a heap, then the addition of one more grain of sand does not make them a heap. But in that case you can never get a heap, for each grain you add leaves you just as much without a heap as before. (Blackburn 1994)
Any number that the Home Office uses in its metrics will be a grain of sand in the definition of a good university. Adding one grain could move a university from lower quality to higher quality, 1% on a NSS scale or a DLHE return. That grain would tip a university from having post-study opportunities or, maybe if they really want to cut numbers, from sponsoring students at all. Any single line cut through the UK’s providers will be arbitrary and unfair in the judgement it makes. The only way out of Sorites is to accept vagueness; that there is no sensible way of defining a heap with an exact number of grains of sand, or that a good university has exactly 217 points on some Home Office metric table.
We must wait for the Home Office’s consultation on what they want to do and how they intend to do it. But if it involves a judgement on the quality of courses or universities, then that will have to tackle the paradox.
Ref: Blackburn, S, 1994, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press