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Don’t let the Home Office stand in the way of good policy

  • 17 January 2017

This guest blog on the Higher Education and Research Bill has been kindly contributed by Professor Graham Galbraith, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

One of the central arguments for the Higher Education and Research Bill – currently at Committee Stage in the House of Lords – is that the Bill will open up a ‘closed shop’ to competition. It is believed that the higher education sector is run for the benefit of universities rather than students and the general public. Or at least that is what I thought the Government believed; then I read its response to Amendment 465 by Lord Lucas.

The amendment, debated 11 January, would require the annual publication of student visa information – information including the number and type of study visa granted – for all universities. We might even be able to make a league table from it.

The Government spokesman in the Lords (Viscount Younger) argued that publishing this data would be a terrible idea. Universities regard visa data as commercially sensitive. Its publication could cause reputational and financial damage. Any university that has high refusal rates would prefer to ‘take any action that it might consider appropriate away from the full glare of the public spotlight’. This is precisely the kind of self-interested argument I am routinely advised not to make to Government.

It is true that universities are keen to avoid reputational and financial damage and that they prefer to rectify problems privately. But unless the Government backtracks on the Teaching Excellence Framework (a move I would not support anyway) these particular horses have already bolted. A university’s TEF rating – a simplistic gold, silver, or bronze sticker – will have a much greater reputational and financial impact than its position in any student visa league table.

The problem of student migration is one both the Government and the universities want to solve. The Government wants to ensure that only genuine students come to UK universities and UK universities want to ensure that they are able to recruit genuine students.

Publishing the relevant data will help. It will re-assure the public than only genuine students are coming to the UK. This will increase confidence in the integrity of the migration system. Publishing the data will also ensure that one of the UK’s world-leading sectors can continue to recruit international students and so continue to flourish. Published data will also enable universities to learn from each other to ensure that fewer of us try to recruit students who will not obtain a visa.

In addition, the data will help genuine international students make informed choices about which universities they should apply to. Universities that play by the rules could expect more applications from international students. Universities that have high visa refusal rates could see application numbers whither. The Government should welcome this; it looks a lot like a market solution to their problem.

So why did the Government resist this eminently sensible amendment? And why did it offer an argument that fits so poorly with the stated aim of the HE Bill and that sounds very like self-interested lobbying from the sector?

Self-interest is key here: it is in the Home Office’s interest to keep this data private. Whatever it says publicly, the Home Office wants to reduce international student numbers; and it wants discretion over how it does this. The Home Office does not want its policies to be troubled by knotty little things like evidence and data. It is much harder to make noises about the abuse of the student visa system when data is publicly available.

There are many good things in the HE Bill. Something like the TEF is long overdue. And as a relatively young university we have a great deal of sympathy with the argument that, with each wave of university expansion, incumbents have cried foul. But international students are the life-blood of our university system and contribute to giving UK undergraduates a complete student experience.

Lord Lucas’s amendment would help the Government solve a problem it sees as significant and help UK universities flourish in a global market place. The Home Office should not be allowed to frustrate this in order to protect its fiefdom. There are bigger issues at stake. I only hope the Government sees them in time.

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