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Student visas reconsidered

Should the Tories be so proud to have been raising numbers?

Artillery Row

It was announced at the tail end of the last parliament that the government wanted to be dishing out 600,000 student visas a year to foreign nationals by 2030. In February the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan gushed at how “hugely proud” she was that this had been achieved eight years early.

When last week’s immigration figures dropped, we were told by certain damp sections of the Tory party that students shouldn’t be included in net migration figures at all. Alicia Kearns, the MP for Rutland and Melton, kindly let us know how foolish our “knee-jerk reactions” were, and Chris Skidmore was generous enough to say that without these record-high student numbers our economy would flatline. You know — the same Chris Skidmore who signed Net Zero into law.

In their view, the pressure that 600,000 student visas put on public services, the NHS and housing supply is irrelevant when compared to the £20bn that universities make from international tuition fees a year. They then reinvest this money in hiring diversity officers, subscribing to Stonewall and exploring the impact that colonialism has had on their curriculum.

Some might think it’s a worthwhile trade off. It’s perfectly fair for a labourer stuck living in Wolverhampton — where apparently there is a university? — to grapple with rocketing rental prices and the 8am rush to secure a GP appointment, because it allows university Vice-Chancellors to give themselves handsome remuneration packages.

The current “export” of higher education costs the British taxpayer anywhere between £5bn and £7bn a year. This is partly offset by the money overseas students spend in the local economy, but even then, we are only really breaking even.

Why aren’t universities told that overseas students should be taught digitally?

These figures are a sideshow anyway. People aren’t thinking about Gross Domestic Product or IMF growth forecasts when they’re sitting in A&E for seven-plus hours, dropping their kid off at overcrowded school gates, and spending most of their life stuck in gridlock.

If the government wants to make a strong gesture and show us that it is committed to getting immigration numbers down, then it needs to start thinking about a complete overhaul of how we “export” higher education.

Let’s not forget, during the Covid-19 pandemic universities couldn’t wait to move to remote learning. The smallest spike in case numbers would see lecture halls boarded shut, masks stapled onto undergraduates’ faces and SU buildings fumigated.

We’ve since been told how clever universities were in 2020/21 — that their campuses are now fitted out with cutting-edge technology that makes remote learning easier than ever, and that students actually enjoy having online components as part of their course, anyway.

So, rather than chuck visas around like confetti, why aren’t universities told that overseas students should be taught digitally, whenever possible?

It’s a fairly straightforward solution. It allows universities to continue raking in student fees, but it alleviates the squeeze on the British taxpayer. As Boris would say, we can have our cake and eat it.

There is perhaps a misconception that most international students are coming here to do STEM subjects. The practical elements of these courses would mean that online learning simply is not an option.

Most international students aren’t wearing lab coats and mixing chemicals over Bunsen burners, though. They are predominantly arts students, sitting for seven-odd hours a week learning about psephology or marketing techniques.

There are presently 217,0000 non-UK nationals studying business management, another 56,000 doing computing and 55,000 on social sciences courses. These are subjects that could easily be done from an armchair in Abuja, or a bedsit in Beijing.

We have to make clear that a student visa is not an anteroom to settled status

China, unsurprisingly, sends the most students to the UK each year, and 51 per cent of their undergraduates are on business and economic courses.

Politicians happy with the status-quo, namely Tory neoliberals and Labour open-door fanatics, might claim that online learning would put off foreign students completely. If they’re not able to enjoy the whole UK “uni experience”, then they’re more likely to go and study in another country.

This is lazy thinking. It is the result of Blair’s agenda to convert British universities into festival tents of good vibes, where students are treated as customers. The rest of the world does not buy into this defective approach. Nigerian, Indian and Chinese families are not stumping up tens of thousands of pounds a year so that their daughter can go on RAG weeks in Huddersfield.

They are prepared to pay that amount because of the sheer pedigree of a UK degree. For starters, the courses are taught in English. The qualification you get at the end of your course will be recognised and respected by employers across the globe, and our university sector still ranks amongst the best in the world.

We have to make it clear to the rest of the world that a student visa is not an anteroom to settled status. To do this, as with every other export, we need to take the product to them. Current figures show that a third of people who come to the UK to study will subsequently go on to get a work visa. This proportion is so high because they have already moved here.

When a Japanese firm orders a nuclear reactor or industrial solvent, we don’t require that they stick their CEO on a flight to Heathrow and put him up in a terraced house for a few years. Nor are Wall Street Bankers forced to put down roots in Luton or Watford if they want legal advice from a London-based firm.

So why is a history student from Thailand required to move his entire life, including his family, over to the UK just so he can sit in a lecture hall with hungover Brits for a couple of hours every week? The pressures being caused by immigration are serious. It’s about time our politicians actually started thinking about how to address them.

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