Friday, 28 January 2011

Student visa consultation: danger upon danger

The Government's present consultation on reforming student visas seems yet another kick in the teeth for hard-pressed universities. They've done much in recent years to bring in all sorts of talent from the 'globalised' world of which the Government - in other contexts - seems so keen. Britain is one of the most popular places in the world to study, a situation that's allowed Higher Education institutions to subsidise home students' fees for years.

Now some of that success is being put at risk.

Some of the measures proposed include:

Students with higher degrees not being allowed to enter the UK to pursue qualifications of the 'same' level;
Higher degree students not being allowed to stay on and apply for work visas; and...
The spouses of higher degree students not being granted work visas.

None of this seems all that sensible. Why on earth can't spouses work? Why can't citizens of other nations come to the UK to gain degrees, perhaps in different subjects, at the level they've already achieved at home? It makes no sense - unless one's aim is to meet ill-advised and hasty immigration cap targets and to play to the populist gallery. It's certainly true that a few students have overstayed their visas and the like - usually when they've been attending 'colleges for the English language' or similar learning centres of questionable repute. But to drag the whole sector into the row seems to be taking a huge steam-hammer to crack a pea. Why not just tighten up on enforcement?

In the meantime, the effect seems to be to stir up ill-feeling with the devolved administrations - in Scotland, for instance - who don't control UK immigration policy; to put off academic talent that might have been considering coming to Britain to work; and to further reduce universities' cost base at a time when they've scratching their heads about the future of just this 'foreign teaching' sector anyway.

Many of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish universities are among Britain's best; many 'British' Nobel Prize winners originated abroad; a huge slice of HE income now comes from non-EU Masters and PhD students. Crash into all that like a bull in a china shop by all means; but don't then complain that universities won't 'diversify' or 'become entrepreneurial'. Already stories are proliferating of external examiners and visiting academics questioned at customs for hours. It's just not a very good way of doing business for a sector of the economy that can only grow in importance in the years to come.

It's to be hoped that universities and academics - who've been making this case over the past few months - win some concessions. Because if they don't, yet another set of poorly-thought-out regulations will become official policy.


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