As he and multiple other big names in the higher education sector were announced as the first commissioners in the International Higher Education Commission, he talked about the difficulties international students are facing in terms of how they are viewed in the country.
“The basic policy architecture is still in place, but I think political support for it is weaker than it was two or three years ago – and I do think we need to acknowledge that and to understand why it’s become weaker,” he told attendees of the IHEC launch event.
“To my mind, it’s ironic that some of the loudest critics of international students and what they bring to the UK are actually on the right of the Conservative Party because the success of the UK in international student mobility was a Thatcherite reform.
“Many of them see the UK through the lens of having studied here, many of them occupy leadership positions in their home countries. It’s a huge benefit to us all,” he continued.
It comes as mounting disillusion in parliament has seen even a former cabinet minister, Kit Malthouse, criticise the counting of international students in migrant figures as “bonkers”.
“The basic policy architecture is still in place, but I think political support for it is weaker than it was”
The gathering saw the likes of UKCISA CEO Anne Marie Graham, former universities minister Lord David Willetts, London Higher CEO Diana Beech and former culture secretary James Purnell be welcomed as commissioners onto the fledgling project, which aims to find more cohesive ways to develop a cross-party international education strategy.
The project will see regular roundtable discussions like the launch event, as well as a series of reports regarding “key themes in the HE sector” over the next few months.
At the end of May, a consultation document is also set to be finalised.
Chris Skidmore, the MP who has helped set up the group, set out his thoughts on what the commission could achieve.
“We need to ask questions not just about whether the 600,000 figure target, which has been met, is the right one, but also to look at a more granular detail about our approach to international students more broadly.
“Is the right support being provided in terms of student welfare and housing? How can we ensure that the international student pathway more broadly into the UK remains sustainable in the long term?,” he asked.
The roundtable on January 17 proved that many in the UK’s sector are keen to combat the current rhetoric that surrounds international students, especially surrounding how they are viewed in staying in the UK past their “welcome”.
“[The rhetoric] has proved surprisingly hard to kill off as a critique because it was so sort of categorically asserted as fact by the Theresa May administration that international students were overstaying and that tens or even hundreds of thousands,” Johnson stated.
“That allegation was unfounded. And when the data was finally established, it was revealed that international students were actually the most compliant of all visa categories,” he added.
Nick Hillman, from HEPI, championed the commission’s efforts beginning to be put into place, and said that the economic value of international students, as well as the non-economic value, need to be looked at simultaneously, rather than being singled out as one or the other.
He also pointed out that the commission will be in a unique position to act when it comes to issues like that of women learning in Afghanistan, and that he hopes it can “think about in a wider sense” how it can maintain a lifeline in such scenarios.
Nic Beech, a board member at University Alliance and VC of Middlesex University and another one of the new commissioners, also urged attendees to think about international students from a business perspective.
“International students have various roles they can play in business creation of one sort or another. I think we probably want to look at this a bit more closely, and about the narrative associated with things like the number of jobs created. That actually can be really appealing,” Beech pointed out.
Hillman commented that he knew of the capacity of international students to transform both their own and other people’s lives, and the commission shows “the power that has been brought together”, but conceded it would not be all plain sailing.
“In the beginning, we mustn’t just get together in rooms where we all agree with each other. You must engage with people that are [different] to understand where their unfounded fears come from, because evidence is on our side,” he added.
Skidmore told attendees that the raft of commissioners, picked from the sector, that has been announced today will not be the last – and that in mid-February there would be a further announcement on international student commissioners who would join the fold.