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UK Grad Route review: who is prof Brian Bell?

A date looms ominously on the horizon. May 14 2024 is the day the Migration Advisory Committee will return its verdict on the UK’s graduate visa and one man has been thrust into the spotlight, chair of the committee, Brian Bell.

Professor Brian Bell is chair of the Migration Advisory CommitteeProfessor Brian Bell is chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, pictured above talking on Sky News. Image X (formerly known as Twitter)

Bell points to a lack of clarity on what "quality" and "abuse" looks like beyond the legal parameters of the visa system

The ‘rapid review’ of the post study visa route was instructed by the current home secretary just a few weeks ago, with the results timed to coincide with the release of the latest net migration figures.

The move strongly hints at impending restrictions or the abolition of post-study work rights for students.

Such changes could have dire financial consequences for the sector as the ability to work in the UK after graduation has been central to the growth of international student numbers at universities in recent years.

That additional income has in turn, masked a lack of government funding for the cost of teaching domestic students.

Concerns that the Conservative government plan to include the removal of the graduate visa in their election manifesto are growing.

The resignation of the skills, apprenticeships and higher education minister Robert Halfon, the ninth minister in the role in the last 10 years, highlights the discontent in government over the future of higher education funding.

Talk of universities being ‘allowed to fail’ abound.

Professor Bell has already stated that the short timescale of the review will “substantially limit the quality and quantity of evidence” that it can provide and he may be in danger of becoming a scapegoat for a decision that’s already been made.

Speaking recently at a Westminster Higher Education Forum on the future on international students in the UK, he admitted that the MAC review is likely to only recommend a further review, as current evidence is limited.

“My own personal view is that I think an awful lot of what we’ll end up saying is we still don’t know enough,” explained Bell.

“We’ll probably find there are still quite big gaps in our knowledge”

“We’ll probably find there are still quite big gaps in our knowledge once we’ve done this piece of work, particularly given the timeframe we’ve got.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a bit of our recommendation to government is to do more to find out about the Graduate Route.”

After his re-appointment as chair of MAC in 2023, under former home secretary Suella Braverman, the Daily Telegraph, reported that Bell said he found the Graduate Route “unnecessary” and that the MAC had previously warned the government – when the visa route was introduced – “that it could offer graduates a backdoor route to remain in the UK in low-skilled work”.

It is unclear whether his views have changed in the year since.

The PIE understands that Bell is currently talking to select vice chancellors in an attempt to consult with the sector. He has however made it clear, that the MAC’s role is not to “explain how the higher education sector should be funded” to government.

As a professor of economics and head of department at King’s College London Business School, Bell has previously pointed out the “inevitable consequences” of the way government has chosen to fund education, which has led to universities increasing international student numbers, which in turn has led to an increase in net migration.

In 2023, the home office only granted marginally more work visas (616,000) than study visas (606,000) – with student related visas constituting over 43% of the total visas issued for the year.

He was formerly an associate professor at the University of Oxford, research fellow at the London School of Economics and has worked for several hedge funds and investment banks as well as roles with the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England.

While the terms of reference for the MAC review of the Graduate Route specifically focus on whether the “integrity and quality of the UK higher education system” is being undermined, Bell points to a lack of clarity on what “quality” and “abuse” looks like beyond the legal parameters of the visa system.

“We’re going to take that to mean unlawful activity, in other words, breaching of the immigration rules” he told the Westminster forum.

“We’re not going to include in abuse the fact that different people want different things from universities or have different objectives or intentions when they come here.”

He has been a member of the Migration Advisory Committee since 2018, an independent non-departmental public body sponsored by the Home Office, that advises the government on migration issues.

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