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Post-election, UK educators prepare for the next five years

The majority win for the Conservative party in last week’s UK general election came as a shock to many. Immigration policy, compliance issues and the proposed EU referendum are all at the forefront of international education stakeholders’ minds as they look to the next five years.

Relative newcomer Sajid Javid has replaced international education advocate Vince Cable as Business Secretary. Photo: Gareth Milner.

“We can continue to expect a reduction in student numbers from countries the Home Office perceives to be high risk”

Staying true to their election menifesto, the Tory party will hold a referendum on EU membership by 2017, which some educators say could have negative repercussions for the sector.

“From an internationalisation perspective, it would put the UK at a huge disadvantage if we were to remove ourselves from Europe”

Britain could stand to lose funding through programmes such as Erasmus+ and Italy’s PON scheme, as well as common framework agreements with institutions in Europe, should it exit the EU.

“From an internationalisation perspective, it would put the UK at a huge disadvantage if we were to remove ourselves from Europe,” commented Stuart Rennie, managing director of higher education consulting firm SJ Rennie Consulting.

Freedom of movement for students is another issue that could arise, although Eddie Byers, CEO of English UK, which will not take a public stance on the referendum, noted that an alternative trade agreement might be put in place to facilitate business between the UK and continental Europe.

The higher education representative body Universities UK meanwhile has pledged to ramp up its campaign to highlight the benefits of remaining in the EU, while Michael Arthur, UCL vice chancellor and former head of the Russell Group, urged universities to “work closely with industry to explain clearly the many benefits of full EU membership”.

In an upcoming letter to UCL staff that will be published on The PIE Blog later this week, Arthur added that a Conservative government presents “significant challenges to higher education” on an immigration front.

Home Secretary Theresa May will remain in post, and Nichola Carter of Carter Thomas Solicitors said the education sector can expect “more of the same” in terms of immigration policy.

The return of the post-study work visa and removal of international students from net migration targets, which many stakeholders had been lobbying for in the run-up to the election, are highly unlikely under the new administration.

“It could well mean more tightening up of the controls, it could mean universities being even more accountable,” Rennie said, noting that being tough on immigration had been a key campaign issue for the Tories.

The more liberal Scottish National Party’s near-clean sweep of seats in Scotland means it will send 56 MPs to Westminster. It is likely to fight the Conservatives on immigration, but its influence will be extremely limited in opposition.

“It’s absolutely critical that Tier 4 sponsors make sure that their approach is applying the rules in an extremely risk-averse manner”

“We can continue to expect a reduction in student numbers from countries the Home Office perceives to be high risk and education providers that are able to get themselves in a position to recruit from countries that are low risk should continue to grow,” added Carter.

And on compliance, she counselled: “It’s absolutely critical that Tier 4 [student visa] sponsors make sure that their approach is applying the rules in an extremely risk-averse manner.”

Meanwhile, the HE sector has lost a major advocate for international education after the ousting of former Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable.

His leadership at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and positive view of international students’ value to the UK economy meant that it had been a “modifying influence” on Home Office policy, Rennie said.

Cable’s replacement, Sajid Javid, is a relative newcomer after being elected an MP in 2010, and a fairly unknown quantity for the sector.

New Universities Minister Jo Johnson. Photo: BIS.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson. Photo: BIS.

However, there is overall optimism that BIS support for UK education as an export will continue, and the new, pro-EU Universities Minister Jo Johnson, who has been a vocal supporter of international students, is a welcome appointment.

“I think the Conservatives are a party of opportunity, of job creation and of business,” commented James Pitman, managing director of HE in the UK and Europe for Study Group.

He noted that if the UK’s international education sector continues to grow at the rate of global demand, as calculated by UNESCO, it will generate 50,000 new jobs over the next five years.

“The economy was probably the single most important factor for the Conservatives,” he said. “Education is the sixth biggest export sector and there’s an opportunity to grow that into an even bigger one.”

John Mountford, international director of the Association of Colleges, also forecast that government support of education exports will continue.

“I think the new administration will look to UK education – universities, colleges and schools – as a strong export, student visas aside, so I do still think there’ll still be that UK Trade & Investment, BIS focus on how we can commercialise our FE offer and take it out into international markets,” he predicted.

“I think the new administration will look to UK education as a strong export”

However, the news is not wholly positive for further education providers.

Mountford noted that the Conservatives were the only major party not to ringfence funding for FE colleges, which could have “big ramifications” for their ability to work internationally.

“If there’s less money at home, it means it’s going to be more challenging to find investment – especially long-term investment you need to be successful internationally,” he commented.

In addition to making it easier for the Conservatives to push through their immigration agenda, the ousting of their former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, may aid communication between government and stakeholders, noted Henry Tolley, head of business development at exam provider Trinity College London.

“At least you know who you’re talking to; there’s one party with one programme,” he said.

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