Migration and universities – coalition mismanagement

Vince Cable skirted over the big immigration issues in his conference speech yesterday.

Vince Cable skirted over the big immigration issues in his conference speech yesterday

My oldest son started university last week. Without naming the institution, it is one that has high proportions of international students from outside the EU. While their fees have funded new facilities, my son talks of overcrowded classes and little social interaction between the mostly far eastern students and those from the UK.

Meanwhile, John O’Keefe, our latest Nobel Laureate, has criticised the government’s stance on migration which has made it difficult to bring the brightest and best scientists to the UK.

It seems that the coalition has given us the worst of both worlds: universities that are struggling to cope with undergraduates and unworkable restrictions on the best overseas post-graduates.

While calling for a calmer debate on immigration, Vince Cable skirted over both of these issues in his conference speech yesterday – an omission given his department is responsible for higher education.

Despite a recent dip in the overall numbers of non-EU international students, the university sector has held up and there has been a year-on year increase in the numbers of these students since the late 1990s. In the 2012-13 academic year there were 125,300 non-EU students in the UK higher education sector, making up 18 per cent of the total student population in UK universities.

Within the higher education sector, the London School of Economics has the highest proportion of international students at 67 per cent, although universities with big science and engineering departments tend to educate many non-EU students, with 32 per cent of all engineering students coming from outside the EU in 2012-13. At present China is by far the biggest sending country for international students.

The UK benefits hugely from their presence, through the generation of export earnings. Fee income from overseas students may by as much as £15 billion and they create jobs in the higher education sector. The off-campus spending of international students also benefits local economies, and they bring skills and talents with them. They ensure that science and engineering courses remain viable and that benefits UK students, too.

There is no evidence to show that international students are displacing those born in the UK. International students may also go on to act as advocates for the UK and its universities when they return home.

But the expansion in international student numbers in UK universities has been pursued without planning for their integration. Many of them end up living in private rented accommodation in deprived neighbourhoods already experiencing high population churn – turning these areas into dormitory accommodation. Nor have many universities thought about social mixing on campuses with high proportions of international students.

As a former university lecturer I sometimes struggled to teach Chinese students who I found unwilling to voice their opinions in seminars. The best universities are responding to these issues, for example, with training sessions for teaching staff, housing strategies and expanding their purpose-built student accommodation so as to minimise the impact of the students on particular areas.

Others have set up volunteering and befriending schemes to help integrate international students, putting them in contact with local families. However, such good practice is not consistent and Vince Cable’s own department has not produced any guidance to hep universities manage student migration.

Government policy also means that UK universities are also struggling to recruit the brightest and best post-doctoral students, the issue highlighted by John O’Keefe. Before 2012 there were a number of schemes which enabled this group to come to the UK. Previously, under the points-based system, post-doctoral students and other academic staff could come to the UK through Tier One routes for highly-skilled migrants.

But in order to meet its net migration target, the government brought in changes to this route in 2012, effectively shutting it down apart from a small number of wealthy investors and those with ‘exceptional talent in sciences and the arts’. Some 18,851 Tier One visas were issued in 2009, including visas for students who had completed post-graduate courses.

By 2013 visas for the most highly-skilled had fallen to 1,898. Just six visas were issued for post-graduates who want to remain in the UK in 2013 and 61 for those with ‘exceptional talent’ whose applications have to be endorsed by organisations such as the Royal Society.

While the government argues that academic superstars can use the exceptional talent route to come to the UK, universities also need the brightest and best post-doctoral students who have not yet reached this level. This is the point that John O’Keefe made in his intervention and an issue to which the Government should respond, Vince Cable’s department included.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and a former university lecturer

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