by Alex Powell

In the midst of multiple crises faced by students, universities and schools, the outcome of the snap general election will be a major indicator of the future of the UK education sector. Each week until the vote we are featuring perspectives from our regular contributors and guests on what the election could mean for students.

There is a severe dissonance between the conception of higher education that the Conservatives purport to support and the policies presented in their 2017 manifesto. In order to show this I have to work from within the Tory understanding of the purpose of higher education, and the role international students play within achieving that. Despite my adoption of this form of argumentation, I wish to make it clear that I do not subscribe to the idea that higher education is purely about reputation, financial stability, or the production of an effective workforce. Further, I do not accept the idea that international students are valuable only in terms of what they can offer to either educational institutions or the UK more generally. The current treatment of international students, and the blatant disregard shown for their welfare, is one of the most indefensible aspects of modern higher education policy.

Under continued Tory government, universities will find themselves stretching their decreasing funds to cover rising costs

The Tory manifesto repeats the promise to cut net immigration to the tens of thousands. This promise plans to include international students within the immigration figures, a move that is bad both for UK higher education and the students who come here to study.

Non-EU international students currently make up around 15% of the UK student population, and they pay far higher fees than UK and EU students. On the massively fee-based funding structure brought in by the Tories, attracting international students and their money has become key to ensuring the financial viability of many higher education institutions. Therefore, any attempt to reduce the number of international students entering the country effectively presents a threat to the stability of the UK higher education sector. This is doubly paradoxical as the government continues to encourage universities to increase spending through policy such as the lifting of the cap on student numbers. Under continued Tory government, universities will find themselves stretching their decreasing funds to cover rising costs. The result? Falling standards and detrimental impacts on all students.

Despite the impact of recent government policy, higher education remains one of the UK’s most highly regarded exports. Students from all around the world come to the UK to study primarily as a result of the world leading reputation held by many British institutions. Including international students as part of a more general effort to cut immigration in the UK sends out a message to these students that they are not welcome. This threatens the reputation of British universities is and would undermine their positions in international rankings and legal tables.


Student nurses protest cuts to their bursaries, Jan 2016. Credit: Garry Knight.

Further, the move threatens the ability of the UK to attract highly skilled graduates to this country, and the chances of those who study here choosing to stay on and work here following their graduation. In already stretched fields such as medicine, the UK simply cannot produce enough skilled individuals to meet its needs, particularly in light of recent government changes to funding in these areas. The intimidating focus on cutting immigration will only worsen this problem.

Finally and most concerningly, the insistence that there is a need to cut immigration is resulting in detrimental consequences for international students, and indeed for all migrants. Stubborn adherence to this misleading doctrine places ever more barriers to students who seek to study here, and legitimises the increasingly xenophobic sentiment held by large numbers of the public. This has lead to increases in incidents of racism and discrimination on university campuses and leaves international students feeling increasingly unwelcome.

The way in which international students are treated under the current funding model of UK higher education is exploitative and unfair, but by the Conservatives’ own design international students’ fees are pivotal in maintaining the financial security of HE institutions. The pledges in the Conservative manifesto therefore represent a major inconsistency in their approach to higher education, which is both a threat to the ability of universities to function in the interests of their students, and a despicable attack on the rights of international students.


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