This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Adam Haxell, Senior Parliamentary Officer for MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities.
Opinion on higher education policy is starkly divided across the political spectrum. What should be on offer, where, when and who pays for it – every position appears hotly contested. On one issue, however, there is near universal agreement, but little tangible action: the UK’s approach to international students.
Almost no politician wants a reduction in international student numbers. These students are a huge cultural, academic and economic asset. As HEPI has itself highlighted, the tens of thousands of jobs they support are spread across the UK, and the £26bn they generate for the economy enables universities to thrive and sustains jobs and economic activity in our communities. Even the 2018 Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report on international students was unequivocal on the economic benefits and advocated an increase in numbers.
Polling also suggests that the general public are on-side, so why does the UK continue to lose global market share and why is there a perception that significant barriers remain for universities and those considering applying? To understand this, we need to diagnose the root cause of the problem.
For some, it remains the migration target, and all would be well if only student numbers were removed from it. For others, it is the lack of a competitive post-study work option that is the roadblock to growth. There is some truth in both arguments but addressing either on their own will not solve a deeper problem within the heart of system.
The current Tier 4 process (the standard student visa route for non-EEA applicants) involves excessive bureaucracy, too much subjectivity and creates too many opportunities for error. All these factors together act as a de facto barrier to growth, joined-up working and forward planning.
Currently, applicants are checked by universities and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) in a system with complicated and unhelpful overlaps. Applicants must send similar sets of information to different bodies, dragging out an inefficient and confusing process. This can be exacerbated when data is cross-referenced, with slight, trivial deviations causing hold ups, checks and further confusion.
With so much data flying around, administrative errors are not unsurprising, but they can be damaging. This process also leads to a somewhat muddled division of labour between what providers are expected to ascertain and what the government wants to establish. Guidelines are unclear, advice differs across providers, and so decision-making can be arbitrary. The upshot is little clarity, time and money wasted and dissatisfied applicants – never a good thing for a country reliant on ‘soft power’ for its global standing.
Then there is the key issue of subjectivity. UKVI is currently tasked with discerning how credible a student is, which veers away from more straight-forward checks into a rather more vague notion of an applicant’s ‘rationale for wishing to study’. This part of the process in particular can blur the understanding of what credibility there is to establish, and crosses the line into academic evaluation, an assessment that UKVI officers are not qualified to make. In-built subjectivity creates further issues when applicants are interviewed, with intrusive questions known to range from outrageous to downright bizarre; often decision letters are just as baffling.
The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) has highlighted examples which are clearly neither credible or acceptable. Applicants have been asked for highly detailed information on course modules, why they opted for one university over another, and have had their family background/occupation used as reasons to doubt credibility. We know of numerous examples of students being asked which bus runs through the university town or what their ‘dream job’ is and why their chosen course may not lead toward that. After verdicts are reached, based in part on such questions, there is the further problem with difficulties in appealing. In-house reviews rarely overturn decisions which stay on an applicant’s record with UKVI and deter them from trying again.
This is not the case for all students, but even one is too many. Enabling a system where this can so easily occur is a major source of concern. In addition, these questions and unjustifiable decisions are not randomly distributed across the sector. Modern universities report a far higher occurrence of this approach. It is not unreasonable to assume that this is a consequence of these institutions being viewed with undue scepticism, a direct result of a system with such subjectivity at its heart.
The impact of the current system
The consequences of this flawed system are not just bad for applicants, but for institutions and for the UK. The more applicants to a university that UKVI refuse, the higher the ‘refusal rate’ becomes for that institution. If this rate hits 10% of all international offers made, a provider can be stripped of their license to recruit entirely – a huge detriment to a provider’s global reputation.
The logical reaction then, by modern universities especially, is to be less ambitious in their recruitment, avoiding areas of the world that UKVI view as risky. This approach is itself fraught, because the government can apportion risk however it chooses, and this information is not transmitted openly to institutions. It leaves certain countries being shied away from in a globally competitive sector and contributes to the UK losing market share.
Openness and honesty, and a willingness to be frank with universities would be much more constructive – as would treating universities as partners and not as institutions trying to get around the system. Currently, with refusals per student impacting on an institution, the system takes no account of context or of any long-term planning, in many ways it discourages it. This is not the way to get the best out of a major UK export industry, and we see no evidence of any other major export sector being treated in this way.
Two solutions for debate
However, solutions are out there. MillionPlus has looked for new ways to approach Tier 4, for simpler and less subjective alternatives.
The first is to have UKVI as a first point of entry and establishing an ‘approval in principle’ system for a student visa. This would frontload the process, altering the dynamic in important ways and thus addressing many of the issues highlighted above. Alternatively, reforming the current system, to do away with out-of-date and unnecessary elements (such as credibility interviews and rejection rate thresholds), would create a more contextualised system.
These ideas are examined in greater detail in a paper here and we hope that this ignites a conversation between the sector and the government to make the aspirations we share in this area much more deliverable.
Bold thinking to address these problems is long overdue. There is a far to go, and much work to do, but the payoff for students, universities and Britain is vast.