‘Keep the rubbish courses for the Brits’

Graduation ceremony, Oxford University. Photo by Ninara, Wikimedia Commons

We have become resigned to the fact that many of the policies pursued by the present administration are inhumane, whether they relate to desperate people seeking asylum or poor children denied free school meals. We have also become accustomed to administrative incompetence – there is no need to think further than the Truss-Kwarteng budget for a spectacular recent example. Every so often, however, a proposal comes along that is so utterly deranged that it still takes one’s breath away. That is the case with their latest ‘thinking’, if it can really be called that, on overseas students.

According to The Times, which seems to function these days as a test bed for the wilder fringes of Tory policymaking, “Ministers explore plans to restrict admissions to top institutions in attempt to cut immigration”. Since the Times sub editors seem to lack the capacity to write unambiguous text, I should perhaps explain that the plan would mean that only “top” institutions could recruit from overseas, not that their intake of foreign students would be limited. Where does one start?

It might help if the Conservative party made up its own mind before floating such ideas in public, since the message that students are unwelcome is already, sadly, out in the world even if policy subsequently pirouettes. Has the far-right faction that wants to focus overseas student recruitment on “top” institutions spoken to the other far right faction that only a couple of months ago was complaining loudly that British students were losing top places to foreigners?

“If your child isn’t being discriminated against because you were stupid enough to have a successful career and go to a private school or buy a family home in a leafy postcode (NB: remember to purchase flat on sink estate next time), then the few remaining stellar university places they might have had a shot at will be snaffled by a Chinese or Indian student.”

One daft idea at a time, please, or we won’t get anywhere!

Clearly no thought has been given to the impact on university finances. Since fee income from home students has been frozen for the past five years, overseas student income has become vital to bridge the funding gap. Without overseas recruitment some courses, particularly those in science and technology, would become unviable, denying provision to home students and adding to the shortfall of skilled workers.

The authors have not noticed, or more probably don’t care, that most institutions likely to be destabilised by a sudden loss of income are in areas needing ‘levelling up’. The failure or major contraction of a university in a deprived part of England would rob the area of a large number of high skilled jobs and the spending power of the institution and its students. It would be unthinking economic vandalism.

We used to regret policy not being ‘joined up’. The current policy space seems positively dismembered. How does a crackdown on the numbers of foreign students align with ideas of ‘Global Britain’ or the wish to become a ‘Science superpower’? How does the aspiration to grow our ‘soft power’ and British influence in the world sit with telling future leaders of other nations to look elsewhere? How does the intention to prioritise the most able in immigration policy relate to turning away those willing and able to undertake post-graduate study.

Finally, what does it say if our government labels many fine institutions as of insufficient quality to be allowed to recruit abroad? It is damaging to the international reputation of our universities and profoundly ambiguous in terms of the messaging to our own people. As former Tory special adviser Sam Freedman tweeted recently “Effectively the policy as stated is “keep the rubbish courses for the Brits”.”

For more articles from Mick Fletcher, click here.