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.

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