The difference between a PM and a Home Secretary

Published: 21 November 2016 at 11:00

Head shot of Theresa May

VIEWPOINT: Why Theresa May should now be championing higher education, one of our greatest exports

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By Dr Jerome Booth, Chair of the Board of Governors at Anglia Ruskin University

At a recent London conference on Russia, delegates were told Russian businessmen consider British businessmen to be canny, but largely absent.  Hardly any make the effort to visit Russia or try to win contracts there. The pattern is repeated across emerging markets.

India, an English-speaking Commonwealth democracy of 1.3 billion people trades more with Belgium than with the UK. There is demand for Britain's services, but for trade to occur the UK has to sell their wares and be open for business.

So it is very welcome that Prime Minister May's first foreign trade mission was to India. Her message to date on welcoming Indian students who want to study in the UK has, so far, been somewhat less welcome. The number of Indian students coming to study in the UK halved in the three years from 39,090 in 2011/12 to 19,750 in 2014/15.  And that is the result of British immigration policy. How can that be? Ministers regularly make the point that there are no limits on foreign students coming to the UK.

This is how it works. UK universities have responsibility to keep visa rejection rates low. If they breach 10%, they risk losing their licence to recruit foreign students. Such a reversal may not only have a major impact on their finances but, worse, can effect their reputation and ability to recruit domestic students as well.

But here's the rub: their recruitment of students to certain courses and from certain geographies can suddenly and unexpectedly face very high visa rejection rates for what look like entirely arbitrary reasons.

This has led to self-censorship: several universities have severely restricted recruitment efforts from countries they believe face a risk of high visa rejection. Others have given up trying to recruit any (non-EU) foreign students.

Add to this the perception in India that Indian students are not welcome in Britain, and you have the massive fall in numbers coming to the UK for their studies. Are the days gone when we exported education and a flavour of what is best in Britain to India and many other countries? There have been generations of students returning to their counties and being ambassadors for Britain for the next fifty years.

Canada is laughing all the way to the bank

Is that creation of soft power now coming to an end? Canada is laughing all the way to the bank. They have also realised that most Indian students go home after their studies, even when their skills are in short supply in West. As for Australia, higher education is now their third largest export.

That's right - export. The UK has not had a trade surplus since the 1980s. Oil revenues are now largely gone, we have sold the family silver, with many companies in the UK now foreign-owned (the largest private sector employer - Tata - being Indian). Our over-dependence on our finance sector is truly frightening. Yet British higher education is one of our success stories, with export volumes almost as large as Pharma at £9bn a year. Not only that - they could be doubled. But government policies designed to turn business away, to say the least, aren't helping.

As Home Secretary, Theresa May was given the task of reducing migrant numbers to the UK. Controlling numbers from the EU, the obvious change factor over recent years, has not been possible pre-Brexit. So non-EU students have been targeted instead, albeit via the indirect route of creating sufficient visa rejection uncertainty for universities that they exit the market voluntarily.

The first priority of Prime Minister May ought to be to correct this economic madness. The easiest thing is to exclude students from the immigration count. The next obvious thing is to keep a proper central government record of all students entering and exiting the UK. Several countries already have such a system, including Australia and Malaysia. Universities cannot do this on their own - central government action is required. Doing so may take the political heat out of the issue when it is realised that students do indeed return home after spending their money with us. Failing that, and insofar as the government still perceives it in the national interest to restrict immigration from current levels (not that this is an easy case to make) they could have a points system or at least some mechanism for monitoring and controlling overall numbers.

Every country has a right to restrict entry. Most have a rational policy of doing so which allows letting in people whose presence is desirable. As in many countries - including modern Germany and others facing much higher incoming numbers than the UK - Britain is very welcoming and tolerant of visitors and immigrants, but many do have a problem with uncontrolled immigration. The new government has an opportunity to rethink its priorities.

Our politicians are followers, not leaders

The case can also be made for having a foreign policy. This is a big ask, I know, and it has been a long time since we had one. Small non-encouraging signs persist, such as the Foreign Office no longer taking any annual cadre of Arabic speakers - but then again maybe there are no pressing problems in the Middle East any more?

For many years we have lacked a foreign policy, which I define as policy abroad designed to further the national interest and which is capable of withstanding periods of unpopularity. Yet many political leaders would probably have a major problem defining what the national interest is. What we have instead of foreign policy is domestic policy with foreign implications. Domestic policy, in turn, is determined largely by polls and focus groups. Our politicians are followers, not leaders.

Just about the only time we see a glimmer of the elusive combination of fresh ideas and experience in No. 10 is when we have a new Prime Minister with previous cabinet experience. Prime Minister May has displayed the ability to re-think the agenda she has inherited with Hinkley Point. So maybe there is hope. But leadership requires working-out what is in the national interest and sticking to it, even if unpopular. Has she got what it takes, I wonder?

The opinions expressed in VIEWPOINT articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Anglia Ruskin University.

Image selected from the UK Home Office flickr stream.