Johnson: reform needed before ‘round two’ of overseas student fight

UK government support for further rapid growth in international student numbers ‘over for now’, warns former minister

June 7, 2023
Source: iStock

UK universities must reform international recruitment needs before the Home Office returns for “round two” of restrictions, according to a former universities minister.

The Home Office’s recent announcement that international students will be banned from bringing family members to the UK unless they are on postgraduate research courses caused considerable concern, particularly among those worried that more restrictions are to come.

But Lord Johnson of Marylebone, speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum, said the sector did well to ensure that the measures were “as limited” as they were, because it would have been “considerably worse” had the two-year graduate route visa come under threat.

“They [universities] did particularly well tactically to focus on their core objective, which was to preserve the essential policy architecture of the graduate route and to have a reaffirmation of the international education strategy,” added Lord Johnson.

“All that said, it is pretty clear to me that the days of government support for further rapid growth in international student numbers are probably over for now.”

The former MP for Orpington said the removal of the words “at least” from the International Education Strategy aim of welcoming 600,000 foreign students per year meant that the target figure could instead become a “de facto cap”.

The sector is at a “critical moment” and must do much more to win back the political support it has sacrificed over the past few years, he continued. “Much of what has gone wrong was very avoidable and should have been avoided if the sector had done more to act proactively to deal with some of the abuse that was creeping in around the edges of a somewhat overheating system.”

He outlined four reforms that universities – and their regulator the Office for Students (OfS) – should “embrace proactively before the Home Office returns for round two”.

These included addressing a “strange” hole in the system whereby universities are regulated very closely for domestic students, but not at all for overseas ones, said Lord Johnson – noting the high dropout rates among Indian and Bangladeshi students.

“This is entirely unacceptable and damaging to the reputation of the UK higher education system as a whole,” he added.

“The OfS needs to get a grip on this and highlight where the weaknesses lie to avoid contagion.”

Further suggested reforms included universities being forced to publish their international recruitment plans, and for greater accountability of recruitment agents.

Lord Johnson also called for universities to weed out poor-quality and fraudulent applications collectively, with Universities UK playing a coordinating role to ensure providers avoid suffering a first mover disadvantage.

To increase quality, institutions should charge an application fee, should require tuition fees be paid upfront, and that maintenance funds be put into an escrow account, he added.

“I am acutely conscious that we have much to lose from politically motivated crackdowns,” Lord Johnson went on.

“There are important steps that the sector needs to take to show that it can put in place sensible measures of its own.”

Lord Johnson said he believed the measures announced already are “basically it” for the short term.

He predicted there could be “further rounds”, and attempts to limit the type of university that can access the graduate route, but not until after the next general election.

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