The global world of higher education. Or maybe not.
We are now nearly five months on from the ‘Brexit’ referendum in which a narrow majority of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. It is generally assumed by commentators (although of course there is no actual statistical evidence) that the key driver of this decision was opposition to immigration. The impact of the undoubtedly high net migration into the United Kingdom was certainly a major topic of debate during the campaign, and indeed became the main argument used by at least some of the ‘Leave’ campaigners.
While it is impossible to tell what motivated individual voters, it is not unreasonable to argue that immigration was an issue. In that sense, the post-referendum discussions about how to limit immigration may not be a surprise, but it has had a particular impact on universities. Higher education operates in a global setting. Movement between countries by staff and students is a key feature, and contributes significantly to academic excellence and, as regards student migration, to exports.
Over the years governments have demonstrated that, whatever their policies or their ideology, none of them were able to reduce net immigration, even (in the case of non-EU migration) where they had all the apparently necessary tools at their disposal. However, there is one group of migrants – students – whose movements are more easily controlled, simply because universities can be forced to act as policing agencies and can be penalised if they are ineffective. Perhaps recognising this fact, the government (or more specifically, the Home Secretary Ms Amber Rudd MP) has focused quite specifically on the control and reduction of overseas student numbers, and at the Conservative Party conference in September she announced a further ‘crackdown’ on student migration. Attempts to persuade the government to exclude students from immigration statistics – which would be totally reasonable given the temporary nature of their presence – have been rejected.
The government’s policy in this area simply does not make sense. Student migration is, by any standards, not an economic, social or cultural problem for the UK. It is however a significant element of a world class university system, and if the view gains ground that Britain does not particularly want international students, the whole university system will suffer. In the meantime the government is also coming under international political pressure in this matter, including (as we have seen over the past day or two) from countries like India with whom the UK is desperate to do business post-Brexit.
One general concern with the Brexit landscape is that policy is not being guided by reason. The government is being buffeted about by the sometimes rather shrill demands of pro-Brexit newspapers and commentators, and responds with an apparent inclination to appease these voices. The long-term damage to Britain from all this may turn out to be significant. It is time to base policy on a much more calm assessment of the evidence.