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UK: international educators react as May fails to win election majority

A shock upset for the Conservatives in the UK’s snap election could be good news for the international education sector, stakeholders have said, as it may cast doubt on whether the party will follow through with plans to tighten student visa regulations and crack down on incoming student numbers.

UK snap general election 2017 hung parliament resultPhoto: The PIE News

"We may find that more diverse voices are given prominence in areas such as international student recruitment"

The UK election ended inconclusively as Prime Minister Theresa May fell short of the 326 seats required to form a majority government.

However, she has announced that she will forge ahead and form a minority government, seeking support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

“The Conservatives did however include a pledge in their manifesto to ‘toughen the visa requirements for students’”

The election result has thrown much of the Conservative manifesto into doubt, according to Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities in the UK.

“The case for a system of funding in which students pay the lion’s cost of their higher education in England and the toughening of visa restrictions for international students – a policy which was deeply unpopular among Mrs May’s colleagues in the last government – should be re-opened,” she said.

Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said the Conservative manifesto contained many “really worrying proposals” including introducing tougher visa requirements, tripling the Immigration Health Charge and keeping students in net migration figures.

“And if this result means that they are less likely to be implemented – or even if more liberal ones were adopted – it would be a huge relief for international students, those here and those thinking of coming in the future,” he commented.

The news of the hung parliament and a possible alliance with the DUP, however, could “also mean a further period of uncertainty in policy terms which, with huge concerns about Brexit as well, could well be bad news for universities, colleges and students”, Scott added.

James Pitman, managing director, higher education UK & Europe at Study Group, felt that May’s weakened position could be positive for those in international education.

“Theresa May’s future as prime minister is in doubt and, given her hostile attitude towards international students, this might not be a bad thing for the sector,” he argued.

“Other senior Conservative figures such as [home secretary] Amber Rudd, [foreign secretary] Boris Johnson and [chancellor] Philip Hammond, have supported removing students from net migration targets, and could provide a more sympathetic ear.”

Recently, an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill to remove international students from the net migration figures – a long-standing topic of debate in the industry – was defeated in the House of Commons.

However, Pitman pointed out that there have been no “further damaging restrictions this year aimed towards international students”.

“The Conservatives did however include a pledge in their manifesto to ‘toughen the visa requirements for students’.”

“We hope that the new government will base any new policies on accurate data, and work with the Office for National Statistics and the sector to establish the true number of student overstayers,” he said.

“We may find that more diverse voices are given prominence in discussions around areas such as international student recruitment”

Malcolm Butler, director of global engagement at the University of Sheffield, said, “we may find that more diverse voices are given prominence in discussions around areas such as international student recruitment.”

And John Latham, vice chancellor at Coventry University, emphasised that the challenges for universities which arose due to the Brexit vote will not disappear, “whatever happens to the political landscape over the coming months.”

“Now more than ever, international recruitment cannot be a fringe activity or a bolt-on; we have to be fully committed because applicants across the world will quickly pick up on any lack of confidence,” he said.

“I fear that uncertainty around the UK’s political framework and policy context will see students who have an increasing range of choices opt for countries that appear more stable.”

The news of a Conservative majority upset in the election results was also welcomed by the UK’s language travel sector.

Sarah Cooper, chief executive of English UK, noted that while the full implications of the vote might not become clear for some time, “we hope it may reduce the chances of a hard Brexit, or of crashing out of the EU without a deal, both of which could have been damaging to our industry,” she said.

“Together with other representatives of the UK’s international education sector, we will be continuing to press the case for a more favourable operating environment for our industry to help us compete against countries with full government support,” she continued.

Andrew Edwards, principal at LSI Portsmouth, echoed that the result could potentially be good news for the industry, depending on what political alliances are made.

“But certainly one would hope that it might modify or temper the shrill post-Brexit discourse and we may have a more reasoned debate around migration,” he said.

And there is some doubt over exactly how much of an effect this election will have on incoming students.

While uncertainty isn’t good for international recruitment or export businesses, said Caroline Nixon, general secretary at the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students, students will continue to come to the UK for education for its quality.

“In the short term, the low pound will continue to make our schools more affordable, which is a good thing for recruitment from abroad,” she said.

“And what happens longer term will depend on issues which, though political, are bigger than party politics.”

“Students want to see progressive and fair policies that will have a very real and positive impact on all our futures”

Meanwhile, the voter turnout among 18-24 year olds is estimated to have been as high as 72%.

Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students, said that the student vote played a “key role in marginal seats across the UK”.

“Students want to see progressive and fair policies that will have a very real and positive impact on all our futures,” she said.

“We want a government that does everything in its power to welcome international students and keep our universities and colleges diverse and vibrant.”

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