Mark Bennett, FindAUniversity Ltd
If UK universities approached last week’s Conservative Party Conference hoping for some clarity on the future of EU students, staff and funding, they left sorely disappointed. Instead the sector has been thrown into doubt over the future of internationalisation in general.
Statements from the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have been met with equal bemusement and dismay, calling into question the future of international student recruitment and doing so in worryingly vague terms.
June’s referendum result surprised many in higher education, but the storm was soon followed by relative calm.
Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science (and a supporter of the Remain campaign) was quick to offer assurances for current EU students and those beginning a course in the 2016-17 academic year. In both cases eligibility to study in the UK would be maintained and access to domestic fee and finance conditions would continue.
This would be the case – in principle – until the UK triggers Article 50 and begins the process of leaving the European Union.
The Prime Minister’s recent announcement threw these assumptions into confusion, but Johnson is to be commended for his further reassurance this week that current fee and funding arrangements for EU students - in England at least - will apply to courses beginning in 2017-18.
Moving the safety net forward a year at a time is of little long-term value, however. Clarity is needed for those who might consider starting a course after 2018 – and for universities planning their recruitment and course provision.
Perhaps it is not too much to ask that the government also specifies what it wishes to see from future international and EU-27 recruitment. Johnson’s words are encouraging. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary’s aren’t.
A lack of clarity over Brexit and the future of international recruitment is a particular issue at postgraduate level.
According to HESA data, EU recruitment accounted for nearly 12% of students on taught Masters programmes in 2014-15.
These students are not just concentrated at postgraduate level: they are also concentrated on particular courses and institutions. And, as Times Higher Education reported in July, there is a very real concern that some degree programmes could be left exposed to a drop in EU recruitment.
This isn’t simply a financial issue. It also relates directly to the ‘quality’ of UK universities, in perception and in practice.
The Home Secretary introduced her comments on higher education by paying tribute to the UK’s ‘world-leading centres of academic excellence’. The Prime Minister also spoke of ‘a country that boasts three of the top ten universities in the world’.
Both statements presumably refer to the publication of the latest Times Higher Education World University Ranking. Three universities (Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London) do indeed make the top ten this year and a UK institution (Oxford) takes the number one spot for the first time in the ranking’s history.
Yet nearly 10% of the metrics used to determine that ranking are based directly on Oxford’s internationalisation, including its recruitment of international students. And nearly 20% of the university’s postgraduate students were EU citizens in 2014-15.
Meanwhile, the UK as a whole educates 10% of the world’s international students. The only country to welcome more is the USA – coincidentally the only country to outperform the UK in global rankings.
Championing the quality of our universities whilst cutting them off from the international talent that maintains and affirms that quality seems misguided at best.
The least favourable outcome of a hard Brexit would be for future EU students to simply be treated as international applicants.
Prior to the conference there was some consensus as to what this might mean. Students would require Tier 4 visas, would be charged fees at the higher rate and would lose access to public funding – including the new postgraduate Masters loans.
Unfortunately, this understanding only lasted until the Home Secretary gave her speech.
In a surprise attack on international recruitment, Rudd challenged the current tier 4 visa system and its underlying assumptions. Her attempt to explain what might replace it was little more than a confusing and partially incoherent gesture.
Rudd began by rejecting ‘a student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal’ on the basis that this ‘only punishes those we should want to help’.
It wasn’t exactly clear who the beneficiaries of this ‘help’ should be, but they certainly didn’t appear to include universities.
Higher education, it was implied, had been in receipt of an unnecessarily ‘generous offer’ in being allowed to recruit international students.
Meanwhile, those same students had, ‘irrespective of their talents’, benefited from ‘favourable employment prospects’. This presumably refers to the standard requirement that international students find a job paying over £20,800 a year within four months of graduation – and do so with an employer that hasn’t succeeded in finding a UK candidate for the post.
Nothing about this offer is particularly favourable and it is only independent of an individual’s talents in so far as it presumably relies on rather a lot of luck too. As UKCISA has made clear, a mere 1% of international students (5,000 out of 430,000) were able to take advantage of it last year.
One possible beneficiary of the government’s hitherto ‘generous’ student visa system might have been the UK economy, but Rudd didn’t seem certain of this. Instead she promised to check whether international student recruitment was ‘really adding value to our economy’. The answer to this is ‘yes’ – to the tune of around £13.5 billion.
Future proposals and consultation may explain the rationale behind these proposals (as well as clarifying exactly what they propose).
The concern is that there may not be a policy justification, beyond a continued desire to reduce ‘net migration’ to the tens of thousands.
This is deeply worrying if so - ignoring coherent and well-evidenced campaigns by sector bodies and mission groups such as Universities UK. The government’s commitment to its target seems bloody-minded, but the determination to include international students within that figure looks set to leave someone with a bloody nose.
It isn’t clear what the new student visa system will involve (beyond a name change) or how it would actually work.
Rudd spoke on the one hand of those universities that ‘follow the rules’ and, on the other, of restricting visas for ‘lower quality courses’. The two terms seem oddly incongruous, but they may be revealing.
One possibility is that the government plans to extend its visa pilot scheme, which offers extensions to taught Masters students at Imperial College London, The University of Bath, The University of Oxford and The University of Cambridge.
These universities have been selected based on their sponsorship record and the government may use similar criteria to distinguish between different ‘tiers’ of visa. Rudd seemed to suggest as much when her speech equated ‘our best universities’ with ‘those that stick to the rules’.
The question is how far this scheme could extend – and in how many directions.
At best we may see a surprising – and perhaps welcome – return to some form of post-study work visa, with the top tier of universities able to grant an extended leave for graduates to seek employment in the UK.
At worst we could see caps on international student numbers arrive via the back-door, with restrictions at institutional level and indirect financial penalties for those universities affected. Combined with a hard Brexit, this could be particularly debilitating for universities that currently rely on EU recruitment to sustain part of their postgraduate provision.
The Home Secretary’s reference to the ‘quality’ of universities makes far more sense in the context of the government’s impending Teaching Excellence Framework.
The TEF is intended to group universities into separate tiers – now identified, to some amusement and bemusement, with Gold, Silver and Bronze standards. The most visible function of this is to alter the amount an institution can charge its undergraduates.
In other words, the TEF will group universities according to ‘quality’ and have a direct effect on their income. As such, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that some connection may be drawn between TEF ratings and the right to recruit international students or sponsor their visas.
If true this will impose an additional penalty for any institutions considering opting out of the TEF: international recruitment may become the stick that follows the carrot of increased fees – a stick that operates at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
On Wednesday the Prime Minister equated being a ‘citizen of the world’ with being ‘a citizen of nowhere’ and a lack of understanding of ‘what the very word “citizenship” means’.
To be a citizen in these very literal terms is to be subject to exclusions. To be a part of a ‘here’, but not a ‘there’.
International students, by definition, are not these kinds of citizens. And this is not the kind of citizenship our universities teach and foster when they welcome the students - and citizens - of the world.
FindAUniversity are not alone in their views on the recent developments in government policy. Many other mission groups, stakeholders and sector bodies have taken similar positions:
Mark Bennett is the Content Editor for FindAUniversity Ltd. He tweets in a personal capacity at @postsgradually
With a new HE Bill on its way through parliament and the extension of student loans to masters degrees from August, 2016 looks set to be a landmark year for UK higher education. Postgraduate recruitment at english universities is likely to see growth in home student numbers, but are other EU students aware that they can also benefit from the UK postgraduate loans scheme?
We’ve teamed up with our friends at SMRS to ask EU students about UK education, Brexit and their awareness of the new loans scheme. Here are a few key highlights:
English universities would be well advised to begin raising awareness of postgraduate loans amongst potential EU Masters students.
For a full copy of the report, please email me at [email protected]
It’s an important time for UK universities as the government publishes a new White Paper: Success as a knowledge economy teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice.
The document is the first major higher education policy to be put forward by the Conservative government and, true to form, it proposes some substantial changes to the organisation and regulation of UK universities.
But what does it all mean for Masters and PhD students? Or for postgraduate provision in UK HE? Quite a bit, potentially.
The government has already shown that it’s not afraid to shake up postgraduate education – with the introduction of new Masters degree loans only a few months away. We’ve taken a look at the white paper to see if there could be any similarly important developments on the horizon.
The White Paper proposes to make it much easier for new institutions to gain degree-awarding powers – and even become full universities.
Currently, there are two broad categories of UK institutions with Degree Awarding Powers (DAPs) in the UK:
The White Paper proposes that all providers are regulated by the same body, a new Office for Students (OfS). It will also make it much easier – and faster – for new ‘challenger institutions’ to gain degree awarding powers and receive student loans in the short-term.
On an obvious level, this shift in regulation is likely to see an increase in the number of institutions awarding degrees in the UK.
We don’t yet know what this expanded sector will look like, but it’s quite possible that some new providers – and eventually new universities – could seek to focus on postgraduate education and training.
Some current alternative providers are already specialist institutions, offering postgraduate courses tailored to particular fields and professions.
As more institutions enter the sector it’s possible that the range of choices available to UK postgraduates could increase substantially – particularly if these institutions become entitled to receive students funded by the new Masters (and PhD) loans.
Currently, there are different categories of Degree Awarding Powers (DAP) in the UK:
The White Paper will make it simpler for new providers to gain TDAPs (and potentially award taught Masters degrees).
But the granting of RDAPs (and the right to award postgraduate research degrees) will take longer. The government recognises that a track record of quality and expertise is necessary to support PhDs and other advanced research qualifications.
The White Paper follows through on a Conservative manifesto promise to introduce a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF). This will be similar to the current Research Excellence Framework (REF), but, as its name suggests, the tef will focus on teaching, not research.
Universities that do well in the TEF may be able to raise their maximum undergraduate fees above the current £9,000 cap, in line with inflation.
Taught postgraduate courses (including most Masters degrees) won’t be covered by the TEF at the outset, but will be phased in during the system’s fourth year.
Postgraduate research degrees (such as PhDs) won’t be covered by the TEF. The quality of PhD supervision will still be maintained, but it won’t be part of an overall teaching quality assessment.
Unlike undergraduate degrees, fees for UK postgraduate courses aren’t capped.
This means that TEF performance won’t lead directly to higher postgraduate fees. However, it’s theoretically possible that high-performing universities might increase Masters fees on the basis of higher TEF scores (particularly with the increased availability of postgraduate loans).
It’s also possible that any future regulation of postgraduate fees could involve TEF-related increases. This is probably unlikely though. This government’s emphasis is very much on reducing regulation in higher education, not increasing it.
Restrictions on Research Degree Awarding Powers mean that PhD students are unlikely to be immediately affected by a rise in new providers. And limitations to the TEF mean that PhD supervision won’t be subject to new assessment and monitoring.
But the White Paper does include a new policy that could have important implications for research students: a reorganisation of UK research funding.
Currently public money for UK research is managed by the seven members of Research Councils UK (RCUK), each of which has responsibility for a specific academic discipline.
Whilst HEFCE provides ‘quality related’ funding to institutions according to their research performance, the Research Councils fund specific projects, including PhD studentships. This is known as the ‘dual support system’.
The White Paper will maintain the dual support system, but all research funding will be overseen by a single new body: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
The UK Research Councils will continue to operate under the supervision of UKRI and will still be the main source of public funding for PhDs.
However, UKRI will take responsibility for increasing interdisciplinary and cross-cutting work that draws on the expertise of multiple Research Councils.
This might have an effect on PhD funding should UKRI seek to broaden the disciplinary and institutional scope of the current Doctoral Training Centres and Doctoral Training Partnerships within which most Research Council studentships are awarded.
Of course, changes to PhD funding were already confirmed, with a system of £25,000 doctoral loans announced for 2018.
The White Paper reiterates a commitment to offer this funding ‘in addition to grant funding by Research Councils not as a replacement for it’. It also proposes a consultation on PhD loans to take place later this year.
The longer-term impact of doctoral loans being introduced alongside research funding changes remains to be seen.
Those are the main points of interest for postgraduates, but there are a few other elements of the White Paper that may prove to be significant:
The HE White Paper marks the beginning of an important period in the evolution of UK higher education, but its policies aren’t finalised yet.
Different groups have already begun to respond to the White Paper and we can expect more of this in the coming weeks. Some of these comments may lead to changes as the contents of the White Paper pass into legislation.