A couple of years ago, students at Royal Holloway got incredibly angry. Firstly, they had to live in Egham for three whole years. But even more importantly, they were angry because their degrees had been, in their eyes, downgraded overnight. RHUL had slid 6 places down the University rankings. Many students felt their degrees had been devalued, and I can’t say I blame them – particularly given the state we’re currently in. For many students in the UK, a RHUL-esque solution appears to be looming.
The problems facing the sector are varied and complex and let’s face it, I’m hardly going to be able to turn my attention to all of them in one column – you’ll get to read me scream about the TEF at some other point no doubt – but I do think that immigration will be an important issue to address. I also think it’s an issue that’s receiving precious little attention from the press and from students. To understand this, we have to remind ourselves that post-Brexit, all sorts of promises regarding immigration have been made. Now, I’m no fan of hers, but May’s task isn’t easy – she has to contend with what is objectively best for the country, and the will of the Tory right and the Tory press. Her task is to get immigration down. Right now, she’s pulling all the wrong policy levers.
Under May, there’s been a considerable amount of talk that students will be included in the immigration numbers. The funny thing is, people like students. Well, not like – no-one likes students, not even students – but when asked about immigration, virtually no one says they want to see cuts to people coming to this country to study. People mention all sorts of groups, from manual labourers to families, but it’s exceptionally rare for those who want immigration reform to focus in on students. People say that they’re upset at issues like jobs, and talk of places where demographic change has taken place with some chafing. No one is upset because an Engineering BSc has too many EU students on it, or that really interesting Critical Theory MA has an abundance of American students. But students are an easily traceable and trackable number that can be brought down in a demonstrable way, helping in the Tory immigration numbers quest.
The question is, will May bring down a university as she brings down immigration numbers? International students don’t just keep our courses filled with great big minds, they also pay great big fees. Though the intellectual and social benefits of non-UK students are obvious, what goes frequently unmentioned is the disparity in fees between UK and non-UK students. Non-UK students pay about 3 times what UK students do, and thus their fees go some way towards propping up a university’s budget. Now, there may be a time and place to discuss the fairness of this, but for now, let’s just take the status quo as is. These extra fees can be spent on staffing costs, land purchases, research, or bursaries. Come crunch time, foreign students have provided a reliable way of making sure your budget stays right. At Imperial, international students are 1/3 of all students – but represent 56 per cent of student fees. So what happens when May cuts them? Universities hit crunch time. Cuts to all nonessential bursaries. Further casualisation of Postgraduates. Less funding for students (which will likely disproportionately affect the arts owing to the bundle of joy that is cross-subsidisation). Without the massive influx of cash that international students provide, a huge majority of universities will be facing an absolutely shocking financial crunch. Queen Mary is no different. After all, a fair amount of our intake is international. That’s some serious money we’re talking. How other universities, some of whom have an absolutely vast number of non-UK students, will cope with this brave new world is yet to be seen – though I’ll admit I’d throw a few quid on ‘Not Very Well’. Though some universities could weather the storm, and perhaps QMUL is one of them, it’s likely that a lot of students would see their institution’s quality drop.
The fact is, regardless of your views on immigration, targeting students is a genuinely bad idea. Higher Education is not only utterly crucial to this country, but also represents one of our few remaining export industries. The UK has world-famous universities that people the world over aspire to attend. May just needs to recognise that we’re now in symbiosis, and that preventing people from accessing them will simply be shooting ourselves in the foot.