Thursday, 11 July 2013

Freeing schools to take international pupils

The idea that David Cameron is contemplating allowing state secondaries to recruit international students - albeit free schools and academies rather than state schools - seems to have caused surprising amounts of consternation. Presumably from her comments, many like Fiona Millar are unaware that international students are already studying at secondary level in the state sector - in FE sixth form colleges.

More to the point might be a question mark about the attractiveness of the proposition. Given the challenges the FE sector has already faced since the introduction of Tier 4 it's hard to imagine many state secondaries will be queuing up to get into international recruitment. The FE sector has found it a challenge competing with private sector alternatives such as embedded colleges.  How much more so will new entrant secondaries find existing independent schools way ahead of them in the market? And although the Tier 4 child route is less politically sensitive than Tier 4 (General), it does require a significant investment in compliance systems and expertise in immigration advice for pupils. Moreover, unlike the independent school sector where most big international recruiters already have boarding facilities, the academies and free schools Cameron proposes could take on international pupils are overwhelmingly day schools. Developing residential accommodation or recruiting host families and extending the school's pastoral care systems will represent an additional challenge. The likelihood of significant new recruitment in this sector therefore has to be questioned.

While discussion of an Education Industry Export Strategy - clunkily named, as all would agree - may have surprised outsiders, the key players in international education have been party to these discussions. It is very welcome to see David Cameron's office supporting a boost for an international education strategy, but until he reigns in the excesses of the anti-immigration lobby - from bonds to NHS charges to landlords being asked to check immigration status - initiatives like international pupils in free schools and academies are just futile tinkering at the margins.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The sledgehammer approach to immigration and social issues

Why do governments struggle to keep immigration issues in proportion?

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, during which one Chinese student was killed and at least one other injured, there was a brief focus on how this might affect international students' perceptions of their safety in the US, a recognition that international students were victims of this awful crime.  But all too soon political representatives were calling for further restrictions on international student visa holders.  Although foreign nationals, neither of the perpetrators was in the US on a student visa.  But the fact a fellow-student on a lapsed student visa may have attempted to dispose of evidence relating to the accused has led to an immediate tightening of the system, with returning international students facing automatic checks of their visa status (and longer queues at airports).  Admittedly, it's hard to know where to start with home-grown terrorists, but sweeping up all half a million of the US's international students into the category "potential terrorist" is a bizarre over-reaction.

Meanwhile in the UK, similar attempts to appear tougher on immigrants, including international students, are evident in the measures announced in the Queen's speech to require private landlords to check tenants' immigration status, and to require migrants to "make a contribution" to the NHS.  The latter flies in the face of economic evidence to the contrary as frequently cited by Jonathan Portes, or for example the recent study of costs and benefits of international students in Sheffield - not to mention the contribution immigrant staff to keeping the NHS functioning...

As for the idea of asking landlords to check tenants' immigration status, it is hard to see how this could be made workable.  While this measure is not aimed at international students, many do use private sector accommodation at some point during their stay.  While large-scale private providers of student housing will no doubt find ways of coping with this additional layer of bureaucracy, smaller landlords will struggle - compare the situation with work visas after study, were most SMEs (and even large ones) fail to engage a visa system they find complex and confusing.  While many cities are seeing a contraction in the student housing market, and landlords may be keen to let, adding an additional bureaucratic hurdle will neither help them, nor international students (and quite possibly any other student who appears to a landlord to have a foreign name or face).  International students with families may be particularly vulnerable given the shortage of institution-managed family accommodation

If governments fail to keep these issues in proportion, and come up with crowd-pleasing gesture politics, is this matched by similar knee-jerk reactions among the public?  We know that public perceptions of immigration are much more nuanced (as the Migration Observatory has shown).  Let's hope the government's proposals get something of a reality check before they reach the statute book.

Friday, 5 April 2013

International policies on international students working after study

International students in the UK who want to stay on and work have seen a minor improvement in their prospects in recent weeks, with lower 'new entrant' minimum salary, the introduction of the doctorate extension scheme and expansion of the Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur scheme.  No-one could describe these measures as opening the floodgates, however, and it is likely that both perception and reality will be that it remains hard for international students to find work in the UK.

Some other countries continue to move towards more generous post-study work regimes.  New websites have been launched for students wishing to stay on to work in the Netherlands and New Zealand.  The European Commission is proposing new rules to make it easier for international students and researchers to study and work in the EU (except the UK and Denmark, which are not bound by the directive in question, and with a further caveat that the granting of work permits remains a national responsibility).  And the much-vaunted changes to post-study work arrangements in Australia have now come into effect.

But already critics in Australia are sounding a warning that political pressures may yet come for this policy to be reversed if it is perceived to disadvantage local workers.  Controversial Australian academic Bob Birrell, not long ago published a report claiming international students were displacing young local workers.  Similarly, in the US a recent article argues that the case for expanding the number of work visas for international students is flawed, relying on false assumptions about whether those students are really "the best and brightest" future innovators. 

The debates are complex (and not just about immigration - what about the effects of emigration in depleting the UK skill base, as a recent Home Office report identified?), the positions are often polarised, and it remains to be seen what degree of 'policy stability' will apply in the face of competing pressures and views.

In the meantime, for anyone contemplating the logic of bringing UKBA back into the Home Office, I commend this Institute for Government statement (as tweeted by the BBC's Evan Davis).

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The BIS Select Committee, Chaney and Culture at Work

Inevitably there has been much published and tweeted on the latest Home Office figures published today, showing a fall in the net migration figures, driven largely by a fall in the number of students. The pattern is very similar to the previous quarter's figures so I won't rehash the arguments. (Though, slipping through almost unnoticed is the latest version of the Migrant Journey Third Report, with updated figures for student stay rates - showing students with valid Leave to Remain in 2011, five years after entering, had reduced to 11% (compared to 17% in 2008), and those with settled status had reduced from 3% to 1%.  In the absence of any good evidence of illegal staying on, it looks as though numbers returning home are increasing steadily.)

However, it's notable that these came out on the same day that the BIS Select Committee called the government's response to its report calling for international students' exclusion from the target to reduce net migration, Too Little Too Late.  Commentators such as Jonathan Portes and Sarah Mulley have been busy reminding those who haven't yet "got it" that it's simply not compatible to include international students in a target to shrink numbers (for net migration), while simultaneously aiming to increase numbers (as an education export strategy).  The government says it doesn't want to be accused of fiddling the figures - but as colleagues in the FE and ELT sectors tell us that they are increasingly having to shift students from Tier 4 into the student visitor route (which falls outside net migration calculations), there's arguably some sleight of hand going on as part of the damage limitation, even if only at the margins.

If we were currently in a stable state, as the Home Office have promised, we might grin and bear it.  However, the Home Secretary's decision to radically increase the number of students subject to "credibility interviews" raises questions as to whether we can expect higher numbers of refusals in future - with 65,000 still to be shaved off the net migration figure, that is presumably government's hope.  UKCISA is currently surveying institutions to ascertain experience to date, but discussions at our recent FE International Network meeting highlighted real concerns about the quality and subjectivity of decision making, especially in relation to English language competence and knowledge about the course of study.

The government, of course, might argue that we're not alone in interviewing student visa applicants.  Take the Australians, with their recently introduced "Genuine Temporary Entrant" (GTE) criterion.  But guess what, the Australians, concerned that their international education industry is still not returning to its full potential, have just released another review:  Australia - Educating Globally (aka the Chaney review) recommends a review of the GTE requirement.  Perhaps this just highlights the difficulty of balancing integrity and welcome in an immigration system, but it doesn't seem that either the UK or Australia has got that balance right yet.

The Chaney report, though, is interesting because it's not just a whinge about immigration processes - it's a comprehensive overview of all the issues involved in an international education strategy, from students' daily life (healthcare, accommodation, transport costs) to quality of education, to co-ordination of strategy at national level and informing it with adequate data.  If the UK could similarly join up the pieces, we would be in a much stronger position to move forward.

On a more positive note, all this flurry of immigration-related commentary may have meant many people have missed the publication of a new British Council report on how employers in a selection of countries value intercultural skills.  I commend Culture at Work as a more inspiring read than immigration statistics, which should encourage us to think about how well we deliver intercultural skills to both UK and international students at our institutions.  That is, after all, a fundamental part of what it's all about.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Reflection in action: thoughts from the PGCert ISAS

One of the highlights of my nearly 15 years at UKCISA was right at the start, teaching the final cohort of the UKCISA/University of Nottingham MA for International Education Professionals, so I have been really looking forward to this weekend when we finally launched 'grandchild of MA IEP' aka the Postgraduate Certificate International Student Advice and Support (PG Cert ISAS).

It has been an intense and exhausting weekend but incredibly rewarding. We have a fantastically committed and engaged cohort of 17 students from across the UK, working in a range of roles and institution-types. Although the commonest shared emotion at the start seemed to have been fear - it's never easy to go back to HE after a long gap or to dive into postgraduate study without a first degree - everyone settled in quickly and contributed an excellent range of experiences and insights, thanks in large part to course leader, Belinda Harris's welcoming and inclusive style (the cup cakes seemed to help too).

The theme of this first module has been cross-cultural theory and its application to the adviser's role. As you might expect this led to reflections on all aspects of support for international students and how this is affected by the wider context - and Tier 4 in particular. Discussions really showed the benefit of having space for critical and reflective thought, on everything from how individual communication styles impact on professional approaches, to the impact on students, advisers and institutions of the creeping compliance culture in institutions. 

While this module has focused on the influence of culture, its introduction of the idea of the 'reflective practitioner' has meant that themes are already beginning to appear that link us forward to the subsequent modules on advice skills, legal frameworks and managing complexity. 

Thanks to all the students, and my fellow tutors Belinda, Qing, Zhen and Joanna for a thought-provoking weekend.  I shall look forward to many more.

The next cohort of the PG Cert ISAS will begin in February 2014.  More details on the University of Nottingham's website.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Furthering Equality in International HE

Today, some thoughts following the HEA seminar at the University of Surrey, which took the ambitious theme of Furthering Equality in International Higher Education: UK and transnational programmes 

As one delegate remarked, in many ways internationalisation and equality/diversity seem clearly linked topics, but it's remarkable how rarely the two appear on the same agenda (with occasional honourable exceptions such as work by the Equality Challenge Unit).  Later, I'll come back to what came out in today's attempts to combine the two.

But first, I want to welcome another rare juxtaposition of topics.  The three papers focused respectively on the experience of international (specifically Chinese) students in the UK, the experience of outwardly mobile students from the UK (in this case, on Erasmus work placements) and the experience of students taking UK degrees under transnational education (TNE) arrangements (in Hong Kong).  While these are generally agreed to be three of the principal aspects of student-focused internationalisation, they are rarely considered holistically, leading to some odd disconnects in the literature.

Bringing these together generated some clear common themes:

First, the potentially transformative nature of international education, as widely evidenced in the work of those who have written about "study abroad", mainly focused on credit-based mobility of organised mobility from the US and to a lesser extent European sending countries.  Contrast this with the literature on international students coming to the main receiving countries, which for quite some period focused on adjustment problems and deficit models, 'otherising' the sojourner.  Therefore Qing Gu's work on the transformative effects of UK study on Chinese students brings a welcome recognition that this transformative power is not uni-directional, and applies to all globally mobile students.  This, of course, raises a crucial question about TNE: can the same transformative effects be found from having an international education at home?  Johanna Waters research suggests that this is far from certain.  Moreover, some authors (eg Luke 2012) would argue that if all higher education is or should be transformational, we have to consider how we disentangle which transformative effects are due to the 'international' as opposed to the 'higher education' experience.

Second, the explanatory power of Bourdieu's ideas of social, education and cultural capital are incredibly useful at helping us understand why some students move, and others do not.  Hannah Deakin's work on Erasmus placement students finds language and finance to be significant barriers for UK students, coupled with lack of encouragement (or at times active opposition) from faculty.  I would suggest that while in some cases finance is a genuine barrier, there is sufficient evidence that both language and finance are barriers that can be overcome to suggest that the real issue is students' lack of social and mobility capital.  Importantly, when faculty members themselves have mobility capital, they are effective at sharing it with their students (returning students likewise do), explaining why students are far more likely to move when faculty are active international champions.

Third, a common theme in all three modalities was the importance of employability.  For students, the personal developmental aspects were important - perhaps increasingly so over time - but one test of their international experience was how it was seen by employers.

But what about equality? 

In relation to students who had studied in the UK, we touched briefly on the issues of inequalities in global flows, both at national level, and at the level of the individual.  What went unspoken was the role of financial capital here, as well as social and educational capital.  Although in countries such as China there has been a vast expansion in the numbers able to engage in study abroad, still only 2% of Chinese students study abroad.  Opportunities remain very much the preserve of elites (although here second-tier elites, as the first tier study at home), albeit on a larger scale than previously. 

In relation to TNE, which potentially extends international opportunities to those not able to leave home, the question was asked: "Is the involvement of UK universities about (equal) opportunities, or opportunism?"  The consensus was that it was perhaps 80% the latter, rather than primarily attempts to extend widening participation approaches on a global scale - although there was a recognition that for some teaching staff, the latter might be the primary motivation, and even at institutional level equality aspects might be an added bonus.  There are some interesting parallels between the perceptions of TNE as second rate compared to domestic public HE in Hong Kong, and perceptions of "more means worse" in relation to increased access in the UK, suggesting that in both cases elites seek to preserve their social and cultural capital by questioning the validity of new waves of provision.

In relation to outward mobility, Deakin's suggestion is that Erasmus work placements have potentially extended opportunities for study abroad by removing some of the financial and linguistic barriers.  However, as Annette Kratz pointed out, current Student Finance England policies on funding students abroad are much less favourable for work placements than study abroad, assuming that the former are paid, which is not always the case.  There is scope for a review of policy here if the full potential of work placements to increase outward mobility of UK students is to be realised.

Finally, one other surprising thing about today:  nobody even mentioned MOOCs (Massively Overhyped Online Courses as I like to call them), but if I were to extrapolate I would say that today's themes confirm that MOOCs are unlikely to achieve the personal transformative effects of study abroad in terms of social and cultural capital.  Moreover, if TNE is seen as the poor relation of in-country study, MOOCs must carry even less credibility.  However, MOOCs undoubtedly have a role in increasing access to HE globally.  As Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera, said this week:
"This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can't afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone."
 Now, if only the rest of the HE sector could adopt the same policy...

Thursday, 10 January 2013

HESA stats: have international students passed their peak?

Today the Higher Education Statistics Agency have published their Statistical First Release of the number of students in UK higher education institutions in 2011-12.  This gives us the first official data on the number of international students in UK HE in the last academic year.  It doesn't make cheery reading for those who would like to see more international students increasing the diversity of our universities, providing fellow students with a more internationalised experience... and of course financially, numerically and academically helping to keep our HE sector the world-leading success story it currently is.  (Helping with the UK's economic recovery would of course be a bonus.)

The headline figure will no doubt be used by government to say that all is well, as the total number of non-EU students registered in 2011-12 increased 2% from the previous year.  But when compared with rises of 6%, 12% and 9% year on year in the three preceding years, it becomes hard to sustain the claim that this is a success story.

More worrying is what you see when you dig deeper. 

First year non-EU enrolments have not grown.  They have in fact dropped, although by less than 0.5%.  This means the growth in the total comes from previous years' increases working through the system.

In the context of this week's headlines about crisis in funding for UK taught postgraduates, equally worrying is the fact that non-EU postgraduate total enrolments have dropped by 1%.  Take a look at HESA's chart to see in graphic form how dependent full-time postgraduate courses are on non-EU students, and the importance of this particular drop becomes manifest.

Numerous articles in this week's Guardian have put the case for a change in policy.  Let's hope the government is listening.