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Could restricting visas stifle HE?

Restricting student visas will stifle UK higher education’s competitive position and open up legal threats, says Martin Vincent

The Home Office has so far refused all calls to exempt international students from its plans to reduce net migration to the UK to the ‘tens of thousands’.  It’s a policy that will hit Britain’s universities hard – as highlighted by a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which forecast that any revenue increase arising from institutions’ ability to charge higher fees when Britain leaves the EU would be wiped out by a tightening of student visa numbers.    

But the policy also seems to be wholly ignorant of one of the fundamental practicalities of how UK universities recruit internationally.  As a result, it risks exposing institutions to significant reputation damage and, potentially, litigation.

That’s because many international students are shared with overseas institutions, with the student completing part of their studies at home, before transferring to the British university for the remainder. It’s a model that has proven to be an effective funnel to attract lucrative overseas candidates, enabling them to access a UK education without committing to – and paying for – a full academic course in Britain. These agreements are legal contracts.  If whomever is in government after the general election presses on with limiting universities’ ability to issue Tier 4 visas, many – perhaps thousands – of these contracts will be breached.  

Of course, a properly drafted contract will feature a force majeure clause which could be justifiably invoked in the case of a major regulation change. However, these agreements are often borne out of more informal partnerships and as a result lack the appropriate due diligence.

In that situation, litigation – whether brought by the student or partner institution – is a real possibility, and could easily include substantial claims for loss of living expenses and a host of other factors. Clearly, there is an immediate need to review the wording of these agreements to ensure institutions are limiting their liability.

Sustaining UK higher education’s high standing in the international market should be an obvious priority, particularly in a post-Brexit landscape

However, what seems much more certain is that these universities’ reputations will be significantly damaged in the international market and it’s a situation that seems destined to hit the UK’s second-tier universities hardest. A mooted two-tier system, which would favour the top layer of UK universities in terms of visa allocations, will widen the income gap between the haves and have-nots of UK higher education. It will also place an unfair burden on those institutions which find themselves in the position of needing to carry out complex negotiations to effectively ‘sell-on’ international students who had been promised places which can no longer be honoured due to an inability to secure a visa.

International markets have become a significant part of universities’ growth strategies over the past decade. In addition to sharing students, we’ve seen institutions look to export their brands into other territories by establishing in-country campuses, with mixed results. Whether Brexit leads to more of this kind of activity within Europe remains to be seen, but if the government pushes ahead with visa restrictions, the sector will have to reassess how it continues to attract foreign students. The significant investment and long timescales associated with setting up an in-country presence, however, mean this won’t provide a quick solution and nor will it be a viable option for every institution. 

Operating a ‘flying faculty’, in which lecturers are seconded to work overseas, is another possibility but it’s also expensive and carries its own immigration challenges, not to mention the fact that both of these options are unlikely to have the same pull-factor for international students looking for an authentic UK education experience.

Sustaining UK higher education’s high standing in the international market should be an obvious priority, particularly in a post-Brexit landscape. It’s crucial to the UK’s ability to continue to produce valuable talent and research. Restricting student visas will only lessen our strength to compete on the world stage.

Martin Vincent is head of education at law firm Weightmans and sits on the Global Mobility Support Services Framework, a legal panel set up by the North West Universities Purchasing Consortium (NWUPC), to support the international reach of  UK higher education institutions.