If you believe the present UK government, everything is fine with our public university system, which continues to achieve remarkable results in international league tables, something habitually described as “punching above our weight” as a relatively small country without much deeper reflection on how our public universities got to be as good as they are. Policies for widening access to higher education are supposed to be at the top of the “social mobility” agenda embedded in the new Higher Education and Research bill according to Jo Johnson, Universities and Science Minister. But the latest admissions figures show that the gap between the numbers of rich and poor students winning university places is in fact widening. The Home Office under Amber Rudd has announced its intention to drastically reduce the number of visas granted to overseas students to study in the UK, arguing that the status quo does not ensure that only “the best” foreign students come to the UK to study in “the best” of our universities and courses. But Rudd makes no effort to deny that this policy is more about “reducing immigration” than the quality of our higher education provision (and it is symptomatic of this obsession that this government believes that international students should leave the country as soon as they have finished their exams). The government insists on treating foreign students as immigrants for political reasons, despite all the more rational economic and geopolitical (“soft power”) arguments for not doing so. This is simply because it is, in reality, impractical to reduce other types of immigration significantly. The policy is “working” in the sense that applications from international students to British universities are also now falling, although whether it will impress those segments of the public who are demanding tougher control over immigration remains to be seen. Opinion surveys show that the British are not generally hostile to foreign students.
Why would they be? All the evidence points to the positive economic impact of foreign students. In a post-industrial city such as Manchester, the university has become the driving force of the urban economy. Overseas students not only pay high fees to the university, they spend a lot of money on goods and services. Reduce their numbers and the whole city will soon notice the difference. The public behaviour of overseas students also tends to provoke less complaint than that of some of their “native” counterparts who return home from a night’s partying in the early hours of the morning, discarding drink cans, bottles, and fast food packaging in the street or the front gardens of houses as they pass by in a state of noisy inebriation that seldom features working class accents.
I can’t help asking myself what Manchester is going to be like if these trends continue. Fewer and fewer white working class men are likely to attend university. Whatever Teresa May says about wanting to address social inequality, the elimination of maintenance grants for students from low income families by this government was clearly a step in the wrong direction. I was the first member of my own family to go to a university and I might well not have done so on the basis of the loans that are now the only option. Mrs May’s foreign policy pronouncements during her recent visit to India were also more than a little stymied by the foreign student visas issue: as I discovered when I organised the IUAES World Congress in 2013, the UK does not welcome Indian students and academics with arms wide open. And all this is before we begin to feel the full impact of Brexit negotiations that don’t look as if they could possibly have a happy ending, even if the government in office finally manages to overcome its internal incoherence.
Given all the other problems and contradictions that it has to cope with, that government may feel it has no alternative but to continue to pretend that there is no cause for concern about British higher education. Past experience might also encourage the view that government and university managers will be able to manage an increasingly demoralised workforce through yet another raft of legislation designed to reduce university autonomy and provoke more restructuring and privatisation of research and teaching, all in the already long familiar name of improving “quality standards”. In this the Conservatives are only continuing the work of their New Labour predecessors, and the Liberal Democrats also dropped the ball of offering an alternative during their brief spell in coalition government with the Conservatives. So it’s hard to be optimistic about the future.
But there is a real danger that this time there will be an irreversible crunch. International students already have plenty of other options (besides Donald Trump’s America). Other countries seem to understand the soft power arguments better than the British do, and as costs and loan debt levels rise here, maybe it may well not be long before British students start thinking of studying in China, rather than the reverse. British politicians need to start thinking about these issues urgently because it will quickly become impossible to reverse the developing trends. They also need to start thinking about the local implications of not allowing major universities to maintain their current economic contributions to their cities and regions. In an era in which erstwhile rich girls from Chelsea now find themselves obliged to seek cheaper accommodation in Peckham, leaving our universities to make do financially with the income generated by the remaining “native” student customers who can afford to pay may not work out so well, and massaging immigration figures by cutting international student visas is hardly likely to be productive if it just increases the number of angry white men to whom our society offers no future.