International students: not an immigration issue

Students really aren’t immigrants

Excellent piece in a recent edition of Times Higher Education by Edward Acton. The essence of his argument is that international students make a massive contribution to the UK economy and most of them leave the UK after graduating. In other words, they really should not be considered as part of the immigration debate. Unfortunately, for entirely political reasons, they are:

Students, in so far as they are regarded as immigrants at all, cause least concern. The vast majority leave after completing their studies. A Home Office study of the cohort entering in 2004 found that after five years, only 3 per cent had settled. Concern only rises if there is doubt that students are visa-compliant and duly exit when their visas expire. But it is acknowledged by all sides and underlined by the Home Office’s own detailed analysis that those with visas sponsored by universities have excellent standards of compliance.

No queuing here

…one clear solution is to lift university-sponsored students out of the net migration calculation. The case for doing so is overwhelming. These “migrants” are distinct. They are, as public policy in other countries recognises, temporary. They are known to have excellent standards of visa compliance. And, in spite of the Home Office, the government as a whole commits considerable resources to encouraging them to come to the UK.

The data needed to separate them is readily available. The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects from its members meticulous detail on each non-EU student joining and completing a higher education course. Every university records student visa start- and end-dates, as well as passport numbers. From this it is possible to derive and publish annual estimates of both the inflow and the outflow of non-EU students who come to the UK for university study.

While influential figures in both governing parties are supportive of the proposal, the Home Office is nervous. A spokeswoman has talked of the need to avoid “fiddling the statistics”. No doubt this reflects ministerial fear that any change to the net migration calculation might arouse public distrust. The fear is misplaced. It underrates the scope for raising the level of public debate. The pressure group MigrationWatch UK, often taken to be the fiercest immigration guard dog, repeatedly emphasises that legitimate international students are not an immigration problem.

As Acton concludes, students have to taken out of the migration stats. We should be focusing on other migrant categories and not students and then, it is to be hoped, it will be possible to undo the damage done internationally to the UK’s reputation.

The PIE news reports on a wave of media attention for UK student visa cap following an IPPR report which suggests that the government has included international students in the net migration count as a way of “gaming” the figures:

IPPR points out that the UK’s main competitors in the overseas student market – the USA, Canada and Australia – do not include temporary or “non-immigrant” admissions in immigration figures, and says only the 15% of overseas students who stay on to work permanently in Britain should be counted within the net migration figures.

More worryingly, it says the government’s plans – which include issuing 250,000 fewer student visas by 2015 – threaten to wipe £4bn to £6bn a year off the UK economy.

The major media response to the report will be welcomed by the education sector, and put pressure on the government as it prepares to announce the latest immigration statistics on May 24.

Higher education is one of the UK’s biggest and most successful export earners and one sector in which we enjoy a real competitive advantage. Now more than ever we need to support it.

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The Imperfect University: More and more regulation

More Regulatory Woes

A recent speech by the Universities Minister focused on his apparent desire to reduce regulation for institutions: “We are in a government that understands the value of autonomy,” Mr Willetts said.

Mr Willetts talked about the possibility of reducing data collection requirements as well as the likelihood of universities escaping some EU regulation following the shift to majority private funding as a result of the new fees regime.

Both of these would be welcome steps. The burden of excessive regulation is a significant problem for universities. It might be thought that as the size of the public contribution to higher education funding declined this would be reflected in a reduction in red tape. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, universities are left with the feeling that the weight of regulation tends to keep growing rather than reducing.

So will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in preparing for the implementation of at present
  • Changed student number controls, with the uncertainties of AAB+ and bidding for the 20,000 students at the margin
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Charities regulation.

This is only part of the picture. The cost to the sector of compliance with this regulatory framework is significant. And this really is not what universities need right now. Part of the burden is data collection and the Information Landscape Project, announced by the Minister in the same speech, is intended to address this:

The BIS White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ discusses a new regulatory framework for HE in England and explicitly tasks HESA, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Better Regulation Group and the Information Standards Board for education and skills, to redesign the information landscape in order to arrive at a new system that meets the needs of a wider group of users; reduces the duplication that currently exists and results in timelier and more relevant data.

Will this make a difference? We will see. Universities have been here before though and have yet to see a real impact on regulation.

Policy, Regulation and Lies?

So, how big is the accountability ‘burden’ on institutions? Looking back over the past dozen years there are several attempts to measure and to reduce or improve regulation. In 2004 PA Consulting, following up an earlier report on accountability costs, investigated changes in accountability costs as perceived by the universities they contacted. The study cited a number of changes since 2000 including the introduction of a revised QAA framework and reduced requirements from HEFCE in terms of bidding, tendering and consultations. The paper concluded, on the basis of its survey, that the accountability cost to the sector had declined over the four year period to the equivalent of £188m (at 2000 prices), a reduction of 25%. However, it is also noted that this was the equivalent to the ‘annual income of two large universities’ (at that time) and therefore ‘a cause for continued attention’. Something of an understatement, especially given the ‘slightly disconcerting’ range of additional accountability requirements identified in the report. These findings were commented on favourably by the (then) Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in his presentation of the Government response to the Interim Report of the Better Regulation Review Group (in 2004).

The Better Regulation Review Group was succeeded by the Higher Education Regulation Review Group (HERRG). HERRG was established to ‘introduce a stage of informed scrutiny into the policy making process’. The impact of both groups was, arguably, negligible. It is difficult to muster much confidence that the latest incarnations of this kind of task force will be any more beneficial in terms of reducing the bureaucratic burden.

There is always a gap between policy as formulated and as implemented. The simplistic nature of the instrumental interpretation of relationship between policy and evaluation is rational but disconnected from reality. Unfortunately though, evaluation is often seen in this way, as the provision of information to policy makers or stakeholders who prefer simply described and preferably numerical outcomes. The disappointment at the lack of measurable output inevitably leads to a desire for further regulation in order to deliver greater confidence in the results of policy. The consequences of this though can be inimical to the intended ends of the original policy and corrosive of trust.

Victims of our own success

The role of HE in creating the professional labour force of the UK public sector is one example of how successful universities have been and how vital is their role in contemporary society. Given the importance of universities then the desire for intervention should not come as a surprise but the interventionist approach which characterises regulation in HE is also part of wider trends and a diminution of an historical trust which no longer appears to offer adequate reassurance of the quality and standard of HE provision. This decline in trust results in heavy transaction costs and, associated with the move towards controlling institutions via contract and regulation, matters have to become more explicit rather than implicit. It is difficult though to see this reduction in trust in institutions as anything other than a long term and irreversible trend. The very nature of the national quality assurance framework, for example, would seem to reinforce this and it is difficult to imagine that the historical basis of trust can be reconstructed.

Regulations - lots of them

Other angles

Some other interesting views: Martin Wolf [1] has argued that universities are, in effect, a nationalised industry which accepted their financial dependence on the state with the foundation of the UGC in 1919. The government has asked institutions to assure quality without providing the funds needed to ensure it and the less generously the government funds, the more it interferes with the universities. That has certainly been the experience in the last few years. Salter and Tapper [2] suggest that, whereas Robbins saw total institutional freedom as necessary for the efficient operation of universities, in the 1980s the principle of HE regulation was established to ensure the efficient use of public funds and then, having developed this far, specific accountability arrangements were needed.

The costs of regulation of HE outweigh the extremely limited benefits. Indeed the Better Regulation Task Force report says that the HE sector has ‘earned the right to more autonomy’ and that multiple audits, excessive data requirements and over-restrictive funding are ‘symptomatic of a lack of trust between government and the HE sector’.[3] The Chairman of the Task Force observes that ‘there is no evidence that the sector is particularly prone to management or financial failings or failures to deliver on academic performance’. The statement suggests that earned autonomy is a key theme for government which wants to see it applied more in HE. The report refers to the PA Consulting study (quoted above) which estimates the accountability burden for HE to be £250m per annum and notes that the National Audit Office regards HE as a low risk sector in terms of fraud and malpractice.

The changes made in HE regulation in the first decade or so of the 21st Century have not resulted in the reduction in burden and cost which is called for. The claimed 25% reduction in the burden of regulation between 2000 and 2004 seems extremely modest in the light of the above (incomplete) list of regulatory interventions which includes a number of new requirements replacing the eliminated accountability demands.

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, will benefit from significantly lighter regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent. No matter what the Minister may say.

It could be worse?

Things may be difficult in universities but they could be an awful lot worse according to a recent story in the TES about the appearance of Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), before the Public Accounts Committee which was considering how bureaucracy should be reduced in the FE sector:

Mr Russell’s retirement may be imminent but, as the hearing made clear, few expect the red tape that has stifled the sector for so long to be untangled any time soon. The committee was informed that, for every £5 that goes to FE, £1 is swallowed up by bureaucracy. The biggest difficulties, MPs heard, are caused by colleges having to deal with very different data obligations and regulations from several agencies simultaneously. A general FE college offering higher education provision, Mr Lang explained, has to accommodate the requirements of four different funding bodies – the Department for Education, the Young People’s Learning Agency, the SFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England – as well as policy directives from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

That’s pretty expensive and works out at more than £150 per student according to the National Audit Office. Things may be bad for the universities but at least they aren’t this bad. So, should we feel lucky?


What is to be done?

There has been only one substantive change in the last decade to the mass of regulation loaded onto institutions: the ending of subject-based inspection of universities (Subject Review or TQA as it was originally known). Whilst undoubtedly welcome and beneficial, the gain the ending of such inspections represented has more than been replaced by other forms of regulation. So the burden continues to grow. One step forward, two steps back.

What then are universities to do? In order to respond to the ever increasing burden of regulation I would suggest that the following steps are worthy of consideration:

  • Don’t put too much faith in Ministerial rhetoric when it comes to reducing bureaucracy;
  • When working out how to deal with all of the different regulatory demands try to sort what really matters from what is less important – assuring quality and standards, and complying with the demands of the QAA is pretty important as is legal compliance with health and safety, employment and equality legislation but other regulations may be less significant;
  • Protect core activities, ie teaching and research, from the impact of regulation as far as is possible;
  • In most cases, go for minimal compliance rather than ‘gold-plating’ of procedures to respond to regulation – this often means steering away from what may be seen as ‘best practice’;
  • Object to new regulations wherever possible – work with others for greater effect;
  • Don’t be deflected from delivering the agreed university strategy by regulation.

Will we see a reduction in the regulatory burden as Mr Willetts claims? We might, but it is unlikely to make a big difference. My advice? Don’t hold your breath.

________________________________________

[1] Wolf, M (2002), ‘How to save the British Universities’, Singer and Friedlander Lecture, delivered on September 26 2002 at Magdalen College, Oxford

[2] Salter, B and Tapper, T (2000), ‘The politics of Governance in Higher Education: the Case of Quality Assurance’, Political Studies, 48(1), pp66-87.

[3] Better Regulation Task Force (22 July 2002), Press release for Higher Education: Easing the burden, London: Cabinet Office.

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

More Regulatory Woes

In University Governance: Questions for a New Era, Professor Malcolm Gillies looks at a whole set of issues around university governance. A previous post noted his suggestion about a greater involvement of alumni but he suggests that they will become more important than the state, at least in governance terms, because of the change in balance of funding from public to private, ie from government to graduate:

42. State denial:  The withdrawal of the state as chief funding agent of higher education creates new balances in governance authority.  The body which can be most expected to fill that space is the alumni, as they now become the chief funding agent of most English universities in direct replacement of that state interest, through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans.  The alumni also have the greatest, life-long stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection.  They understand the institution’s symbolic value.

But will the reduction in public funding really mean less government involvement in university affairs? Sadly, no. Rather than cuts in government funding to HE resulting in a bonfire of red tape, there is a whole host of new or augmented regulations, including:

  • The new fee arrangements which institutions are all deeply engaged in considering at present
  • Student number controls, which may well change in the light of fee developments
  • The move to more comprehensive annual access agreements with OFFA
  • The changed financial memorandum between institutions and HEFCE
  • New visa arrangements for Tier 2, staff, and Tier 4, students, together with monitoring arrangements for the latter
  • The Key Information Set (KIS) which will require all universities to provide more information to prospective students
  • The proposed introduction of a Student Charter
  • The idea of extended transcript information for all graduates through the Higher Education Achievement Record
  • The revised Quality Assurance Agency institutional review method
  • The increased burden of Freedom of Information requests
  • Developments in the work of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Private HE institutions, which are expected to increase in number under the new fee regime, benefit from significantly lighter  regulation. However, for everyone else there remains the seemingly iron law that as government funding declines the volume and range of government regulation inevitably increases. So, less money and ever greater constraints on how it can be spent.

World Education: The New Powerhouse – Going Global 2011 §1

Some comments on Going Global 2011 – World Education: The New Powerhouse?

I was fortunate to be present at the British Council’s Going Global Conference in Hong Kong earlier in March. There were about 1,000 delegates there and as might be expected for this kind of event many of the presentations were high level and whilst some were pretty strategic others felt rather abstract.

There was a distinct UK flavour to some of the discussions and the particular current domestic issues relating to the new English fees regime and Tier 4 student immigration did intrude in a number of sessions. Despite this there was a lot which was of interest including some really good perspectives from other nations.

The opening session on “world education, the new powerhouse” (does this really mean anything?) had a number of set piece presentations from Ministers and then contributions from Hong Kong to Brazil to Africa:

Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, Chief Executive of Hong Kong spoke about the idea of HK as a regional higher education hub. However, you get the real impression that they won’t be just another regional hub, but rather that they have the foundations, the location, the money, strong institutions and the real vision to do make this happen. Two other points of note here: first, education is the Hong Kong government’s single biggest spending priority and accounts for 25% of annual expenditure (25%!); second, Harrow School (yes that Harrow) is intending to open a branch campus in HK.

Professor Tony Chan, President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Convener of the Hong Kong Heads of Universities Committee, spoke about the changing patterns of international HE and reinforced the commitment to the idea of a regional hub. Hong Kong universities are offering a real international education not the more traditional Eastern model. And, lest anyone doubt the intent here, he noted that HKUST was aiming for 20% international students, increasing international study opportunities for its own undergraduates and more collaboration with universities in mainland China. HKUST is still a young institution but is an impressive one and hugely ambitious: “We are in aggressive recruitment mode for international staff and students”.

Three other international perspectives of note here. Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Secretary-General and Chief Executive, Association of African Universities, Ghana spoke about the challenges for Africa. It was a very long list and the challenges exist across the board. Collaboration and a continent-wide academic framework including mobility and mutual recognition is the way forward. He also noted the importance of using ICT to help the growth of HE in Africa. Ultimately this was an optimistic prospectus but the massive scale of challenges here remains rather daunting.

Dr Javaid Laghari, Chair of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, reported that Pakistan still has a long way to go to achieve its ambitions for having two universities in the world top 100. Pakistan was seeking to grow PhD numbers significantly, including through split PhDs with foreign universities. And all of this was happening in the context of being in the ‘frontline of the war on terror’. Again we were given an optimistic outlook but these are really challenging circumstances in which to be growing and strengthening HE.

Dr Carlos Alexandre Netto. President of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, gave a sense of the huge scale of HE in his country. With over 2,000 institutions but only a 15% age participation rate there is ongoing major growth in public university enrolments. Most HE students are at private universities though and growth in student numbers is actually being funded through loans for private university study. A major quality assurance operation now been through its first cycle. Overall, left with the impression of a system of extraordinary scale.

Between them Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Exeter and President, Universities UK, and David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, sought to paint a positive picture of UKHE. The THE report on the event notes the following:

Claims that the UK government is cutting funding for higher education are “not factually accurate” and gloomy media coverage is damaging the sector’s reputation overseas, according to the president of Universities UK.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told an audience of international higher education leaders at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong last week that the reality of the government’s funding changes in England was “rather different to the headlines”.
He also countered suggestions that fees for overseas students would triple and described the UK as still being “welcoming” to international students despite visa restrictions.
Professor Smith’s message on funding echoed that from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told the conference: “We expect universities to get the same amount of cash, if not more than they have received up to now.”

Both were therefore arguing there would be more money in the system, international fees would not be tripled (although the contrast with David Cameron’s assertion in China last year that international fees would actually be reduced to bring them in line with domestic fees was noted by the anoraks) and international students would continue to be extremely welcome in the UK (although this is somewhat at odds with the Government’s proposed Tier 4 visa changes). Willetts said he was embarrassed by small number of UK students going abroad and says Government was trying to help with this (but it was far from clear how this help would be offered). Steve Smith meanwhile added that the revised visa proposals which would be published soon would be good news for universities and international students. We’ll see.

World education may or may not be the new powerhouse but the challenges in some parts of the globe remain huge and in other areas the difficulties are self-imposed. Overall though there seems to be a strong degree of consensus that the future of HE is global.

More visa uncertainty

Position on visas still not clear

The Guardian has a story on the latest government position on changes to the visa regime.

Whilst on the face of it there does seem to be some movement in response to the concerns expressed by universities, there are still significant uncertainties:

But young scientists applying for visas may face serious difficulties because their incomes are often so low. Previously an MBA or a £150,000 salary guaranteed enough points to secure a visa, but a PhD scientist on a typical academic salary fell short. Scientists are concerned that the government will fail to address this disparity under the new scheme. A further problem is that scientists are awarded three-year visas for posts that can last much longer, forcing institutes to use two consecutive visas for each researcher.

“The average postdoc here lasts four or five years, so each consumes two slots and that is crazy. There are people here who are very nervous about whether they will be allowed to stay and finish their work,” Rigby said. “It is bound to be a disincentive for bright young things to come to this country.”
visa
Catherine Marston, policy adviser at the Universities and Colleges Union, echoed Rigby’s concerns. “It causes difficulties for people who are already here in the UK. If their visa runs out, they will use up one of your allocation if you decide to support them. If you don’t decide to support them they will have to leave the country.”

Professor Rigby said the government must revise its “one size fits all” approach to immigration. He said the rules should be changed to accommodate scientists by giving PhDs more points and awarding visas for the full duration of an academic post.

The uncertainty doesn’t help. It sends out the signal that UK HE is not open for business. The proposed changes to student visas are likely to exacerbate this. Hard times indeed.

NB, Catherine Marston is the most excellent policy advisor at Universities UK, not UCU as stated in the report.