Clustered around International Students’ day, we have had two parliamentary debates which come back to a core question, posed by Lord Lucas opening in the Lords:
No one I have spoken to in doing research for this debate has a clue as to what the Home Office thinks the problem is. What is the problem? Why is it a problem? What are its priorities? (Lucas 2016)
So, in both Westminster Hall on 16 November and the House of Lords on 17 November, parliamentarians of all sides have been puzzling over this core question. What does the Home Office think is a problem with international students?
It is clear that when the points-based system for visa was introduced, there was a major problem left by the Home Office as people who wanted to come to the UK could pretend to be students. Sometimes they could pretend to be students at real universities and colleges and sometimes they could pretend to be students at pretend colleges. This is the first line of defence of a policy of vigilance in the issuing of visas to students – are they genuine?
The ‘bogus’ colleges that sponsored students have been closed, but the Home Office is left with an ambiguity as to which ones they were. Baroness Williams noted “Some 920 institutions have had their right to sponsor overseas students removed, and the effects are clear to see”. In September Amber Rudd had noted that “The Conservative-led coalition stopped 875 bogus colleges bringing in overseas students”. Have 45 further ‘bogus’ colleges been identified? I have asked for the data, but sadly the Home Office hasn’t been able to supply it yet.
However, the Home Office has a problem here. It is perfectly capable of noting that there were abuses in 2009, but does it think there are abuses now in 2016? Has the Home Office not sorted things out? Tricky to claim now that the last Home Secretary hadn’t done enough.
The Conservative party has a manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. This was the focus of many contributions in both houses. The target is strange, people don’t see students as immigrants, the way of calculating students in the target is illogical. Support for the notion of removing them from this target came from Nicky Morgan, former Education Secretary, who said:
I very much hope that student numbers will be removed from the drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, for the reason I have given about public opinion, as well as because it is the right thing to do for our economy. (Morgan 2016)
However, Home Office ministers are not moving on this. This is impossible, apparently, because the statistics produced by the ONS cannot be tampered with. That may be, there may be an international standard to uphold, but the target could easily be changed and a subsidiary number produced by the ONS.
The other aspect is inability of the Home Office to know who has gone home. Lord Green of Migration Watch clung to the validity of the International Passenger Survey, but no one else does.
The value of International Students
The good thing about both sessions is that all speakers talked of the value of international students. Although the financial case can be made, many went beyond that to the wider value. The experience of the Lords is particularly wide, with contributions from the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Wellington. Here’s what a new member, Baroness Chakrabarti, said in her maiden speech:
International students are visitors, not migrants. They do not take places from young people in the UK, but rather enrich their learning and their lives. When they leave, they often—not always, of course—become instinctive ambassadors for Britain and the democratic values we seek to preserve and promote around the globe. Further, if some go on to live and work here in the future, that is also, I would argue, to the good of academy, economy and society alike. (Chakrabarti 2016)
Neither Home Office minister was particularly forthcoming about the plans for the future. There was sustained pressure about the current pilot scheme – which the Government claims will help ‘our best institutions attract the best international talent’. Why does the pilot not include any northern English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish universities, why is the data secret and where is this going?
Amber Rudd’s conference speech had gone further; not just selective support for the ‘best’ but a threat against those of ‘lesser quality’. Paul Blomfield pressed the Immigration Minister twice on whether they would be using the TEF to make any judgements, he said:
I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his time here that when one is in consultation, one listens to views and then comes to a conclusion. At this stage we are listening to points, including the ones that he has made. (Goodwill, 2016)
Confirming, I think, that the Home Office is in a pre-consultation consultation phase. Hopefully that will be clear that there is an opportunity for the UK to engage with a diverse group of students taking diverse courses at diverse institutions. Sadly, the mood continues to reflect the best and brightest or brightest and best formula (see my complaint about that here) .
It’s good to have these debates, but you have to agree a bit with Lord Lucas’s summing up:
I have also listened to Home Office Ministers’ speeches on many occasions, so I had low expectations. I was pretty certain that the Minister would be issued with a stick of candy-floss—sweet but very little substance—and so it turned out. It was comforting that she said such nice things about welcoming international students, but she absolutely did not say, “We, the Home Office, will be putting our backs into making sure we get lots more of them”. I am sad that she did not. (Lucas 2016)
I think we should all be a little sad, and still quite apprehensive.