Killing the golden goose

International student numbers must be capped, and candidates held to the same academic standards

This article is part of a Universities in Crisis feature from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

International students were supposed to be the gold standard of the modern British economic model. Even if the hard sinews of British power had withered, we could still boast a leaner, more agile sort of greatness. Call it soft power, call it the knowledge economy, the creative industries or the service sector — in some intangible, postmodern fashion, we were winners.

There were many facets to this blissful Blairite dream, from the idea that buying stuff, but not selling it, could make Britain money, to the notion that pit villages could be revitalised if they were better connected to the internet. But perhaps the most shining element of all was the British university. Here was a field of endeavour we could portray as “world-beating” with at least some honesty — and we had the Times Higher Education league tables to prove it.

In 1999 Blair called for 50 per cent of Britain’s young people to attend university. This was the great West Wing idea that old, dirty, heavy industry would have to be shipped overseas, whilst ex-industrial workers would simply learn to code — or whatever the post-modern economy required. Borders would be open, both to immigrants flowing in and jobs pouring out.

Somehow a nation powered by spreadsheet jobs, Mandarin-speakers and shiftless creatives was going to form the nucleus of massive economic growth. History has not been kind to this idea — economic warfare with Russia and China has made a mockery of it and Western leaders are desperately trying to rebuild sclerotic domestic supply chains, especially the Americans.

International students were an important element of the picture, especially in Canada and Britain; the two countries that have most rapidly embraced the expansion and internationalisation of their higher education sectors. While the idea that low-paid workers would generate innovation was for the birds, the case for overseas students offered a surface plausibility.

They would come alone, live in a cupboard, pay astronomical fees for the privilege, and then politely depart at the end of the process, leaving us with cash in hand and them with a leg-up in their own countries. We were, as it is still grandly put, “exporting education”.

A minority would stay, of course, working in highly skilled and specialised fields, the best of the best, wielding their first-class minds for the good of the country. We’d be printing money, attracting top talent, and burnishing our global reputation. For years, international students have been treated in policy debates as a get rich-and-clever-quick scheme without any downside.

Advocates called for them to be taken out of migration statistics. Under Theresa May, the Conservative government jumped at the idea, setting astronomically high targets of 600,000 international students a year by 2030 as part of its International Education Strategy.

The government met this target swiftly, and with 679,970 overseas students as of 2021/2022, Britain has the world’s second largest number of overseas students studying in the country. Only the United States — a country around five times larger in population terms — exceeds Britain’s numbers, with just over 1 million in 2022/2023.

The reason we have all these scandals is that the golden goose has stopped laying

When things seem to be too good to be true, they usually are. A massive spike in non-EU students, especially post-pandemic, brought more students than ever to British universities from India (rising from 17,800 in 2018/19 to 87,000 in 2021/22), and Nigeria (up from 5,500 to 32,900 in the same period). These students were generally poorer (one London food bank recently revealed it was feeding 1,000 international students a week); taking shorter, cheaper courses; and unprecedented numbers were bringing dependents. Critics alleged that increasingly it was not education, but British visas, that universities were seeking to export.

Recent investigations have uncovered how so many of these students were enrolled. While home students at elite British universities were having to secure As and A*s  at A-level, those coming from abroad were only required to have Bs and Cs. An exposé in the Sunday Times revealed that Newcastle University requires home students to achieve three As, while setting the bar for overseas students at two Ds and an E.

Defenders, such as Jonathan Portes in the Guardian, pointed out that these were foundation courses, and that such courses exist for British students too. What they failed to mention is that home and international foundation courses are generally distinct, with the latter specifically and aggressively marketed and branded to overseas students.

In many cases, international students (such as those from Nigeria, Latin America and Pakistan) are required to apply for foundation courses before going on to undergraduate degrees. Additionally, once these courses are completed, students can choose to go directly into the normal second year of undergraduate study — a back door that bypasses the process faced by ordinary domestic students.

Despite meeting Blair’s 50 per cent goal in 2017, the gap between disadvantaged and privileged pupils has barely shrunk

The reason we have all these scandals is that the golden goose has stopped laying. We were told a vast supply of capable, well-educated international students was desperate to pay a premium to study at British red-bricks. Numbers were limitless, as were the depth of international pockets. Government reports were full of lines on graphs soaring into the stratosphere, and nobody stopped to ask if there were limits to demand. We’re now getting the answer.

Other countries have their own, much cheaper, higher education options. In Australia, some students pay as little as £6,000 in fees. At German public universities there are no tuition fees at all — even for international students. An Indian student would generally pay in the region of £2,600-7,200 a year studying at home. He could expect to pay an average of £22,000 a year for the privilege of studying in the UK.

As well as being far cheaper, local institutions offer courses taught in native languages and linked to national and regional systems of patronage. Outside high value degrees such as engineering, computer science and medicine at the most elite institutions, the strategy of British universities resembles not so much the well-aimed cast for the best and brightest from overseas as an undiscriminating attempt to trawl up whatever shoals can be lured towards the boat. Thus the dropping of entrance requirements, the promotion of foundation courses and the blind eye turned to students bringing their family with them in search of work.

The zeal with which these overseas students are courted reflects a British higher education sector in trouble — one that has recklessly expanded on the baseless assumption that the modern economy would require an infinitely vast population of university graduates. While some degrees do boost graduate salaries, damning evidence has been ignored that a large proportion of degree subjects leave students no better off.

Indeed, the Telegraph found that graduates with degrees in English literature, translation, photography, public administration, music, film, fashion and tourism management were actually earning below the average non-graduate salary five years after completing their degree — in return for expending three years study for which they accrued a £45,000 debt.

The Blairite solution to the disadvantaged is to remake these unfortunates in their own image

Unperturbed, British vice-chancellors and Whitehall policymakers alike remain mindlessly fixated on the mythical benefits to the country of universities focusing on quantity over quality. Having started us down the road towards half of school leavers going on to higher education, Tony Blair now thinks his achievement too modest. In 2022 he called for 70 per cent of British pupils to go on to university by 2040.

Even the benefits to social inclusion are imaginary. Despite meeting Blair’s 50 per cent goal in 2017, the gap between disadvantaged and privileged pupils has barely shrunk. As more students attend university, more degrees and institutions end up piled at the bottom of the heap. The British university system continues to be what it has been for decades — a filtration system that sorts students by wealth, class and background. International students have helped here too by giving a superficial appearance of diversity, even as domestic intakes remain unchanged.

Are residential three-year courses that take millions of young people out of the workforce while saddling them with debt the best approach for higher education? America’s community college and technical school model and Britain’s own Open University are vastly more work-oriented, both in subject matter and flexibility, than the behemoth university system that has been promoted instead. Technical skills and adult education are badly neglected in Britain’s system, which remains focused on an elite model of fresh-faced teenagers living in residential halls and “consuming” an academic syllabus.

Nine in ten MPs have degrees. More than half went to a Russell Group university. While 46 per cent of UK students study for STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) degrees, only 17 per cent of MPs have one.

Inevitably, they push the educational model that they know; the one that worked for them. At some level, perhaps, they know or intuit that other models are possible, and that embracing them would come at the cost of the cultural outlook and economic model that they have relentlessly pushed.

The Blairite solution to the disadvantaged is to remake these unfortunates in their own image. Hence “regeneration schemes” premised on trendy apartments, hipster coffee shops and modern art galleries. Hence universities as the primary recipients of government largesse and strategic expansion.

Old school British class elitism has merged with a new internationalist cadre (David Goodhart’s “anywheres”), who share a commonality of lifestyle, economic model and values that find expression in liberal, globalised cities — think London, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Montreal and Dublin — but which are at odds with supposedly backwards-looking national hinterlands. Amidst a feel-good haze of non-specific creativity and “social justice”, an international class of elites blurs into an international class of servants and supplicants.

The high priests of this worldview are elite universities. More than all the economic arguments, the inflated fees, or even the promises of innovation, an internationalised campus is an article of faith; a marker of prestige and virtue, a guarantee of entrance to a world that floats free of borders and boundaries. The proponents of open-borders ideology congregate in universities whose intakes are more internationalised and whose management sponsor visas with the wave of a hand.

What universities are for is themselves

Borderless globalists urge Britain to imitate countries like Canada, where university participation is higher and proportionately even more international students are enrolled, with 550,580 entering Canadian universities in 2022 — almost as many as came to the UK, but in a country of only 38 million people, as compared to the UK’s 67 million. Even more study visas were granted for other forms of tertiary education, and dodgy degree factories have proliferated which Canada’s immigration minister has compared to “puppy mills”.

The consequences for Canada should be a warning, not an encouragement, for Britain to heed. Canada’s headlong pursuit of university and population expansion through mass migration and international student growth has created the inevitable result when supply cannot meet the unrestricting of demand — house prices have exploded to the point where even Justin Trudeau’s liberal progressive government has now imposed draconian restrictions on overseas buyers of property and placed a cap on the intake of international students.

While we’re ramping up numbers, Canada — which is a little further down the road of this approach — is setting a target of a 35 per cent reduction in overseas student numbers.

What is the purpose of a university? Is it to produce skilled workers or to offer a life-enriching rite of passage? Should it pass on our traditional culture and heritage and be a place where timeless and irreducible truths are contemplated or focus on generating economic growth and innovation? Is creating global citizens and promoting diversity the goal, or increasing social mobility within Britain while also producing a cohesive governing elite?

Some of these aims are contradictory; many would seem to be pursued better if disaggregated and assigned to dedicated institutions. The chief barrier to reform or clarification is that universities don’t really stand, institutionally, for any of these ideas. What universities are for is themselves.

Cheap adult education should be a far more widespread feature of local and national policy

Aggregation is the point. The prestige that derives from institutions that train the leaders of the country, or produce world- changing discoveries, is packaged and diluted, sold to millions of students, and “exported” all over the world. Likewise, this aggregation fuels the perpetual growth of universities, and their armies of administrators.

British universities are engines of patronage, jostling with one another for government funding, laundering research and reputation through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). University graduates have every motivation to defend their institution’s credential-conferring reputation, and the only people empowered to assess them are employed by universities. This is a self-serving and self-perpetuating system. Expansion at any cost — expansion just “because” — has wrought disaster.

International student numbers must be capped, and candidates held to the same academic standards, regardless of their country of origin. A far greater priority must be given to practical skills and the national interest when it comes to the massive resources invested in education, especially when millions of students are saddled with considerable debt in the process of getting an education.

The intangible benefits — elite formation, moral education, cultural heritage — must not be lost, but nor is their only home the academic university. With the incredible online learning resources now available, cheap adult education should be a far more widespread feature of local and national policy. It is immaterial that some universities — those seeking to protect their lucrative rent-seeking model — may regret that this is so.

Vast and inhuman, our universities have lost their soul in the process of reckless expansion. To get it back, and rediscover their humanist purpose, they must learn to think small again.

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