In an explosive exchange between Professor Edward Acton, Vice-Chancellor at UEA and Glyn Williams, Director of Migration Policy at the Home Office, Williams countered criticism over a mixed message from government on migration policy and told Acton that universities were overly fixated on the visa issue.
“If the government was seen to be moving the goalposts, there would be an outcry, and that is why the Minister is not going to do it,” Williams said on the migrant count – underlining that visa policy change had been necessary to counter fraud, and would have happened notwithstanding the government’s declared intention to reduce net migration.
“UKBA’s observation of the quality of students in their eyes is better, and refusal rates are below 10% generally,” he told delegates at the Improving International Student Experience debate, which was also broadcast live. “Reductions [in visa issuance] have mainly come from the private sector, which was what the policy was intended to do,” he added.
When asked how the government viewed the abolition of Post-Study Work rights in the context of international student recruitment, Williams was similarly robust, underlining that 50,000 students entered the job market after their studies in the year to April 2012. “At a time of high unemployment for the UK, we took a view on that,” he said, saying that there were still significant opportunities to find work. “We will not be going back to that [policy].”
However he said there was a recognition that “we need to change the dialogue [on work rights]” and pointed to the relaxing of PSW rights for MBA and PhD students.
He challenged the sector to be more pro-active in terms of enabling an employment experience. “If work is so crucial in attracting international students, then what can be done in terms of internship schemes to give students this opportunity?”
“If work is so crucial in attracting international students, then what can be done in terms of internship schemes?”
Acton had rounded on Williams – saying he was in an “appalling position” of having to argue that UK policy is unified, which was “totally implausible”. He said international students were treated as unwelcome immigrants by Home Office rhetoric while other government departments realised the value of their economic contribution.
In a passionate plea for policy adjustment, he pointed out that five Select Committees had backed the exemption of students from the migrant count and also drew attention to the recent i-graduate ICEF Agent Barometer, which had seen Canada rise and the UK decline in terms attractiveness of destination.
In another difficult exchange, Williams was asked if he felt the revocation of London Metropolitan University’s HTS licence – leaving international students in limbo – had been appropriate and proportionate. He said the situation “was in no one’s interests” – while fellow panellist, Beatrice Merrick of UKCISA, gained applause for pointing out that, as a taxpayer, she objected to a UK£2 million pound rescue fund that had to come out of the public purse because of the crisis situation.
One other main issue addressed in the electric exchange of views was the “unBritish”, as Acton deemed it, compliance culture. “It is so arbitrary, so unknown what exactly is the threshold you must meet to demonstrate sufficient [student] attendance, that rules are being introduced at certain universities that are redolent of apartheid and inter-war central European regimes that have no place in Britain,” he said.
Williams acknowledged that UKBA was keen to engage with the sector in terms of co-regulation.