13/100: Waiting for Theresa May: Changes in British Student Visa System

The British Home Secretary, Ms Theresa May, is scheduled to announce the long anticipated changes in the Student Visa system about an hour from now. She is expected to say what everyone expects her to say – and what conservatives have said before – that they are cracking down on the visa abuses, limiting immigration and reversing the open door policies pursued by Labour. However, the message will appear – to the rest of the world – as confused and off the mark as the government’s approach and policy to immigration has been so far.

Ms May and her colleagues are fully aware that any misdirected tweaking of the system can cause long term and irreversible damage to the British Higher Education industry. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has recently pointed out that this should be treated as a key export industry, and he is indeed right. In fact, Higher and Further Education is one of the rare sectors where Britain can claim some sort of a World Leadership, behind America but ahead of the rest of the pack. This is an ‘industry’, which, if allowed to compete freely, can bring money, technology and opinion leadership to Britain, something its ill-advised missions in Afghanistan and its half-hearted adventures in Libya may not. Ms May’s job is, therefore, to walk the tightrope, balancing the need of the education sector with Prime Minister’s rhetoric on immigration, and reconciling the tried-and-tested tactic of scaremongering with the common-sense understanding of globalization.

And, she is expected to fail the test. Going by her statements in this morning’s newspapers, she is expected to ignore the advice from the Parliamentary Select Committee, and the universities and the business and universities ministers. She is expected to push for an arbitrary reduction in the numbers of student visas issued to Non-EU migrants, introduce a cap in the numbers of Post-Study work visas issued each year and make coming to Britain a wholly unwelcoming experience. She contends that all this would be done to ensure only the best and the brightest come to Britain. However, this is a sort of Rip Van Winkle statement – she is oblivious that international higher education is a competitive field and Britain’s recent popularity as a Higher Education destination came only as other competitor countries, like Australia, tried similar rhetoric. The best and the brightest always have choices, and they tend to go where they are welcomed. Parliamentary statements and meddling politicians don’t really help in making a country an attractive education destination.

What’s more worrying about Ms May’s statement is that it comes at a bad time for British Higher Education in general. The shifts in the funding policies are about to exterminate the British Higher Education system as we know it. The ill-fated attempts to abolish the Polytechnics in 1992 (which, someone I know, calls the abolition of the universities) and later incorporation of smaller research based universities failed to keep the pace with social changes, namely the emergence of a ‘new’ professional ‘middle’ class and their global aspirations. Just when this crisis was reaching its height, the government has decided to remove the life-support from the universities – the teaching grants and research funding – without properly assessing whether the universities are ready. There was more rhetoric covering the move, which was mostly about running out of money. The coalitions toy-boy Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, who signed pledges protecting students before the elections but promptly reversed his stance as soon as he got power, sugar-coated the move saying that he simply didn’t know how bad public finances were, and therefore, the government’s approach to universities is fully justified. However, while the general consensus is that banks are mostly too big to fail, it is surprising to see how callous the government was about the universities; banks supply the life-blood of the economy, money, and the universities supply the social lubricant, education. Hence, the complete disregard of the Higher Education system in the government’s agenda point to the same amnesiac policy making as seen in other areas like immigration and defence. This government seems to be governing for a world that does not exist.

Coming on top of all these misdirected policies on Higher Education, Ms May’s efforts may further cripple the British For profit education industry, which runs on International Students. Ms May intends to further regulate the industry, as she seems to think that the industry isn’t regulated enough. However, the reality is this: The For Profit education industry in Britain is marginalized and heavily regulated, often by bureaucrats without any idea or enthusiasm about education, and its customers, the international students, are stereotyped into an eternal guilty-unless-proven-innocent box. The crisis of British Higher Education can only be solved by innovation and dynamism of this sector; Ms May, however, wants to unleash a reign of terror of sorts.So, we shall wait for the statement now. This will be without expectation, indeed, because we must stop expecting the politicians to do the right thing. But, in a way, this is a make-or-break moment for, if I can claim, for Britain. A choice between going forward and going backwards will be made. Some political points will possibly be scored, and a lot of possibilities will be lost.


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