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David Willetts – Former UK Universities Minister

Lord Willetts has written a book, A University Education, on British HEIs’ contribution to higher education and society. He sat down with The PIE News to discuss the UK’s international education offer and share his thoughts on how commercial education brands can also benefit the UK’s position globally – as well as dealing with the ongoing net migration debate.


Rt Hon Lord David Willetts was Universities Minister in the UK between 2010-2014. He now chairs the Resolution Foundation. Photo: The PIE News

"I personally would like to see even more Chinese students coming to Britain and for more to stay on for post-study work"

The PIE: We’re here in Westminster, where just across the road Brexit is on almost everyone’s lips, so let’s start there. What do you think might happen with Erasmus after 2019?

David Willetts: I want Britain to continue to attract international students; from Europe and more widely. Working out exactly how Brexit impacts this is quite complicated.

For example, one effect of Brexit has been to reduce the value of the pound, so it’s made British universities fees cheaper, so that could boost people applying to study in Britain.

You could even imagine a scenario where EU students were continuing to be able to get fee loans in return for British students getting fee loans when they go abroad.

The PIE: The UK gets about a billion pounds a year from Chinese students, and they’re the biggest group in the UK. Is that where the future lies for international education globally? 

DW: I personally would like to see even more Chinese students coming to Britain and for more to stay on for post-study work. There is some of that, but you’ve got to show that you are earning above a basic salary of around £22,000 a year, and the employer has to fill in a complicated form.

“I would be a bit more permissive, allowing more of them to stay on and work afterwards”

I think that if a Chinese student stays on in Britain for a year or two and works for a small company or advises on marketing materials for goods and services to be sold back in China, those are all good things for the British economy. So I would be a bit more permissive, allowing more of them to stay on and work afterwards, but as a minimum we want more of them to come and study.

The PIE: In the book you say there’s a misconception among some that international education is not just selling a service but also accepting migrants. I think some of our readers would argue that this ignores the fact that a lot of international students are going where they can find those pathways. So if the UK wants to be competitive in attracting international students, does the UK not need to accept that some of those will turn into migrants?

DW: Some students from overseas do turn into migrants; it can happen through legitimate routes. One is they can form a relationship with a British citizen, get married, and make a life here.

Or they may stay on and do some post-study work and do it so well and in such a key profession that they build up rights and apply for citizenship. So there are those legitimate routes, and a good thing too.

However, that is different from people who come to Britain to get a specific educational qualification, a degree, a master’s, a doctorate, whatever, and then go back to work in their home country using the value that’s been added by that British qualification. That’s what most overseas students are doing, and I’m arguing that’s not migration.

“Although it counts as migration in the United Nations definition of migration, it’s not really migration”

Although if they’re here for more than a year it counts as migration in the United Nations definition of migration, it’s not really migration, which is why many other countries don’t use it as a basis for policy, and we shouldn’t in Britain either.

The PIE: Leading up to what happened earlier this summer with the international passenger survey, why do you think that happened?

DW: When I was the minister for universities, we were having very lively arguments with the Home Office then, because they genuinely thought that a lot of the overseas students coming to Britain were overstaying illegally and I just didn’t believe it, it just didn’t seem to be credible.

When I was talking to officials in departments for education around the world, key sending countries like China, they weren’t telling me ‘Mr Willetts, we are terribly unhappy, you getting 100,000 Chinese students a year and only 50,000 are coming back, we can’t put up with this’.

If you arrived in Britain as a student and you declared in the survey you were arriving as a student, and if having been a student you then work for a year and the survey asks ‘what have you been doing in Britain?’ you could well say when you leave ‘I’ve been working’ because that’s what you’ve been doing for the past year, and that would count as a student arrival and a worker leaving, and so in statistics, it would look like a student who had not left.

The PIE: UUKi recently launched the Go International campaign to encourage more UK students to go abroad, as there’s currently an imbalance where the UK just doesn’t send many students abroad. Why do you think that is?

DW: It is a very serious problem, which I discuss in my book. I mean it’s great that we have half a million or more overseas students coming to Britain every year, but by contrast, we’ve got perhaps 30,000 British students going to study abroad every year.

“As English becomes the world’s global language, British people have less of a hunger or desire to learn a different language”

I think part of that is I have to say our appalling laziness about languages, the fact is as English becomes the world’s global language, British people have less of a hunger or desire to learn a different language.

But another factor which I wanted to do something about as minister is that unlike some other countries, you can’t take your public financing for your education abroad. I would like to see our student fee loans extended to British students to use abroad in countries with whom we have an agreement.

One very specific way you could enable that to happen is through the growth of international alliances of universities. My view is that when a British university is part of an alliance it would be great if the fee loan funded the year of study abroad, not just a year in the British university.

The PIE: What do you think Australia or other countries do well that the UK doesn’t?

DW: I think one area where we should do more and can learn from Australia is the whole post-study work regime. I think we should learn from places like Australia, and indeed Germany, which regards post-study work as one of the ways overseas students contribute to the domestic economy.

The PIE: Arguably branch campuses are going to be the saviour of UK universities. Is that a good thing or is it a distraction?

DW: I think there will be some growth, for example, King’s [College London] where I’m a visiting professor is making very close links with Germany.

It does take quite a lot of management time for universities [and] it can absorb a lot of resources, so universities may find that it’s quite a lot of trouble for the return that they make.

I personally think that we will see global higher education chains, but they are more likely to be commercial entities. I would like to see some British commercial education chains delivering university education around the world, not just the individual university laboriously setting up a second campus.

The PIE: Could that come from the booming private ELT sector?

DW: That’s very interesting as to where it could come from, you could imagine commercial entities delivering English language training developing into wider higher education propositions. I think oddly enough the biggest English language provider for students in Britain is actually owned by a Swedish family trust [EF], which is fair enough, we’re an open economy, so good for them.

“Britain hasn’t really got a big global education chain, which is very odd and very frustrating”

But with the possible exception of Pearson, Britain hasn’t really got a big global education chain, which is very odd and very frustrating given the quality of our education and the prestige and the hunger for it around the world.

And one of the reasons why I was trying to liberalise the sector and my successors have pushed that even further is I wanted to see an environment where those type of global education chains should be created.

 The PIE: What are your thoughts on Teaching Excellence Framework?

 DW: My frustration when I was minister… was that the government controlled public funding and set out a fixed number of students per university, they were each allocated a fixed number of places, so there wasn’t any real competition for students [until my funding changes came through].

And then there weren’t any metrics of teaching quality, so you had in teaching very much weaker competition, much weaker data sets and weaker pressure to raise performance.

Now my successors have tried to unblock all that, and a good thing too, the trouble is that we have still not got really reliable metrics that people trust as definitely capturing teacher quality.

TEF is really at the moment focusing on some metrics that students genuinely care about, ‘what are my subsequent employment prospects’ and things like that, but don’t necessarily actually capture teaching quality. I think Britain has now embarked on an exercise trying to get some better metrics that do capture teaching quality. It’s difficult, but it’s a really worthwhile enterprise, and it’s right to give it a try.

The PIE: There’s a chapter in your book about globalisation, why was that an important thing to include?

DW: The two great forces in the modern world, globalisation and technological change, have not as yet had as big an impact on higher education as they have on many other sectors, and I think in the next couple of decades we’ll see both globalisation and the technological revolution changing education.

“The trouble is that we have still not got really reliable metrics that people trust as definitely capturing teacher quality”

It’ll be fascinating to see what happens in Africa because when you look at the demographics, that’s where there’s clearly going to be a surge in the number of young people wanting a higher education.

The PIE: Your book is called A University Education and deals with the HE sector specifically – why is that?

DW: The book is both a kind of practical analysis of how universities in Britain work and ‘what does Britain bring to the idea of being a university’. I would say what Britain has particularly brought is a sense of autonomy.

Our universities score highly for autonomy, they’re not part of the public sector though they receive public funding in different ways, so the autonomy of the university is very important.

Behind all that, there’s the idea, which I think is powerful and lovely, of a community of students and scholars. And that sense of a community where there’s an exchange between the generations, scholars are passing something on to the next generation so the next generation, in turn, will be better educated.

I think that makes the university one of the most important institutions in the modern world and my book tries to explain just how they’ve risen to that prominence and why it matters so much now.

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