‘A postcard from Delhi’ – and other issues
It has been a pretty frenetic last few weeks with
- an important meeting of the Home Office’s Education Sector Forum at the end of October - the first chaired by the relatively new Director of Immigration Policy
- a couple of Education is GREAT events (one in London and the other in Delhi)
- a visit to India alongside Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson’s HE delegation (as part of the wider one headed by the Prime Minister) with, amongst many other things, a fascinating one and half hour meeting with the Visa Section.
- a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students on Tuesday (co-chaired by our President, Lord Bilimoria, and with Jo Johnson reporting back on his visit)
- a Westminster Hall debate on international students in Parliament yesterday and a House of Lords debate on the same subject today and
- a UKCISA Board meeting on Friday, chaired by the new Chair of our Board, Prof Koen Lamberts (VC of York) when we will aim to draw some conclusions from all this and consider how best UKCISA should react and respond.
Education Sector Forum
The agenda for this was essentially ‘future policy’ and in the context of the Home Secretary’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference (to which you will have seen our response). We were told that the forthcoming consultation was not necessarily designed to cut student numbers but that ‘everything in the speech and in terms of overall Home Office immigration policy should be seen in the context of cutting net migration’.
What we expect, of course, is for the consultation to focus on ‘differentiation’ (differing processes or entitlements – application requirements, part-time work or transfer to Tier 2, dependants, lengths of visas at end of course, etc - for different students attending different sorts of institutions, categorised, we believe, by certain compliance and also possibly quality measures.
Our reading of this is that compliance could include, as in the current ‘Tier 4 pilot’, visa refusal rates but also quite possibly or at some stage student departure rates. The quality measure is less certain although many have of course linked this to the TEF as this is around the corner - though that could well have some unexpected (or unpalatable) consequences.
The only things which are known at present are that it will be out before Christmas and, we gather, last for some 2-3 months. We were all encouraged to engage as positively as possible - and we hope all members will - but if its intent is to reduce the numbers of students coming to the UK by reducing benefits and entitlements for some and we are being asked which (I found myself saying ‘do you want your arm cut off or your leg?!’) it might be difficult to do so!!
The India delegation
Moving on swiftly to India I found myself invited to attend various of the events in Delhi arranged for the UK HE delegation of some 30 VCs and PVCs, as part of the wider UK delegation led by the Prime Minister, Trade Minister and various others including ‘captains of industry’. The main focus was a conference arranged by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and various UK universities made impressive presentations and apparently managed to forge new research links with some of the big players.
What was of most interest to many of us, however, was the way that students and visas seemed to emerge in virtually every important occasion with Indian ministers and commentators making it clear that it would be difficult for the UK to expand its trade relationship unless mobility of talent (including easier access to UK education) was part of the concordat. In fact one editorial towards the end of the visit was headed ‘Mixed Bag From May: UK must liberalise visas to take New Delhi-London ties to next level’.
As part of the visit we all had a briefing from the UKVI staff based in Delhi - and then I had a separate one and half hour meeting at the High Commission to talk through more detail - and of course there they think the current visa system is working well with 89% of T4 applications being successful (and 30-40% opting apparently for the Premium Service at £150 extra which gives them a guaranteed three day turnaround).
I rehearsed various issues and in particular credibility interviews which are apparently given to some 30% of applicants (in addition to the video interview) and they of course see this system as ‘effective’ - although talking later to a number of agents, the perception of these is clearly quite un-nerving and off-putting even to very well qualified applicants. In fact one agent said to me that they would like to refer many more students to the UK but in terms of their own reputation and the risk of refusals, they had no alternative but to refer them to countries with more attractive processes and entitlements.
Finally though - and more positively - I was in fact invited to India as the guest of the Universities of Sheffield and De Montfort to chair a panel session of students who had studied in the UK as part of a very prominent event to promote the general UK welcome to all and their great campaigns ‘Love International’ and ‘We Are International’ when all spoke so positively and so inspiringly about their time in Britain. And then we all attended the launch at the British Council of the new Education is GREAT campaign brands (‘Discover You: Study UK’) and the package of £1m of scholarships (or bursaries) for Indians - see BC India website.
Conclusion? UK education is obviously (still) held in very high regard. Numbers have slipped but for many it is still very much the first choice. Some UK universities (and possibly colleges though I am not too sure) are recruiting reasonably well and GREAT and the British Council are huge assets. But unless there is a real change of policy and attitude on student visas it will be an uphill struggle to build the numbers back up to where they were.
But if we can and do it could make a massive contribution to UK/India relations as clearly educational links are at the heart of the relationship. But if we don’t and can’t, it won’t just be our education sector which will suffer..
Most vocal about all this was of course our President, Lord Bilimoria, who was present at every major event and interviewed very extensively by the UK and Indian press (often speaking he said ‘As President of the UK Council for International Student Affairs which represents the 450,000 international students in the UK’). And Sir Keith Burnett, VC of Sheffield whose articles summarised so much about what so many of us felt.
All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students meeting
All of that is of course just my take on things but on Tuesday Lord Bilimoria and Paul Blomfield MP chaired a (slightly truncated by the voting division bell going off after 10 minutes!) meeting of this new APPG, Rebecca Hughes, Director of Higher Education at the British Council gave a presentation of what the Council was doing globally - and in India - and then Jo Johnson gave his perspectives on the India visit.
His view was that there were particular challenges in that market (and on wider issues including the recognition of UK one-year Masters courses) but that elsewhere in the world recruitment to the UK was buoyant. And he repeated the much loved statistic that recruitment to UK universities was significantly up over the last five years and up by 39% to Russell Group universities since 2010 (and that 89% of Indians got visas and that the UKIERI and Newton programmes were really successful and important).
And seemed relatively relaxed about the forthcoming Home Office consultation which he said was merely about giving simpler procedures and/or more entitlements to those students going to compliant institutions.
We will see over the next month or so but the view, from India, very clearly articulated at a political level and presumably noted, was that attitudes to students and processes need to be improved if our relationship with that country is to expand, post Brexit and over the next decade.
Apologies for length!
Dominic Scott, Dominic Scott, Chief Executive, UKCISA