by Simon Marginson

MAC report is strong on info but weak on politics

The authors of the MAC report on international education exports have surprised everyone by failing to seize the opportunity to reset the policy agenda, says Professor Simon Marginson in Research Fortnight.

The Migration Advisory Committee report on international students is a good example of what can go wrong when a cautious and clear-minded professor of economics is asked to sort out a tense and unstable political problem.

In the end, the easiest thing to do seems to have been to set down the facts as well as possible, duck all the contentious issues and call on all the parties to respect each other’s good faith and communicate better. It is as if all the contention has just been a misunderstanding, beautifully summed in the report up as views that are “not aligned”.

It is sad that it has happened this way. Alan Manning will not receive full credit—except perhaps from 10 Downing Street—for the things he has done well. On the information side, except in one respect, the report is an excellent summary of the export sector, its contributions to UK and the current problems. In many areas it is a useful point of reference that will dispel lingering myths and uncertainties about international students. It makes the following points.

  • International education is good for the country: “We hope that the sector continues to grow,” writes Manning.
  • Other English-speaking countries have grown international enrolments more rapidly than the UK and there is a danger that Australia will take the UK’s number two position in the global market, especially with a growing perceptions that UK student visas are difficult to obtain and most competitor countries offering more generous post-study work rights than the UK.
  • Total education-related exports contributed £17.6 billion to the UK in 2015 including £12.9bn in higher-education exports, according to Department for Education figures.
  • International education generates important soft power benefits for the UK.
  • “There is no evidence of problems stemming from the impact of international students on the wider community,” it says.
  • There is no over-stay problem in international education—students go home as expected.
  • International student graduates are an important source of skilled labour, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and they should be encouraged to work in UK after graduation.
  • The impact of Brexit on international education is a concern—there are no upsides of Brexit in the education export sector—and needs to be closely watched by government.

So far so good. Accurate, evidence-based and sound advice.

The research problem

On the information side, the only element that the MAC has missed is the contribution of international students to UK research, especially in STEM. This is mentioned briefly but it is a major contribution and requires a more carefully nuanced policy, especially after Brexit reduces the flow of EU citizen students into UK doctoral programmes.

In 2016-17, a massive 42 per cent of all doctoral students in UK were non-UK citizens, including 29 per cent from non-European-Union countries and 13 per cent from the EU. In physical sciences, the non-UK student share of PhDs is 40 per cent, in mathematics 52 per cent, in computer science 58 per cent and in engineering and technology 59 per cent.

This is a very high level of dependence on foreign talent, especially non-EU international student talent, but it is how the world works. STEM researchers are highly mobile on a global basis. Every effort must be made to keep this flow coming as doctoral students provide a major part of UK research. Some estimates suggest doctoral students typically provide half of all research effort in a national science system.

So aside from this omission, where does the report go wrong? The most contentious issues in international education stem from the Conservative Party’s anti-immigration stance. Its persistent promise to cut net immigration from 300,000 to 100,000 a year or less, however unrealistic, has been a core political undertaking.

The visa problem

The inclusion of international education in the net-migration target, despite complaints from the whole education-export sector, the higher-education sector, and many politicians, threatens massive cuts in international student numbers. Downward pressure in policy and regulation has sustained what has been a five-year period of slow or no growth in international education.

This has included the near removal of the post-study work rights normal to international education in other jurisdictions; expensive and bureaucratic visa processing; hostile questioning of applicants; increased surveillance of visa holders; selective increases in institutional numbers as approved by the Home Office; and regulatory discrimination against further education, private providers and second tier higher-education providers.

On all of these issues the report smiles carefully, ignores the point or covers the facts and calls on everyone-—especially the export sector—to be nicer. This looks naïve, while at the same time it also treats everyone as fools. As a manoeuvre it is not convincing; this is why the export sector has responded with a mixture of bafflement and fury and, perhaps, has failed to give the MAC report credit where it is due.

No clear stance

The MAC does not directly acknowledge the government/party threats to cut net migration, and international students and the fact that this position contradicts the other government position of support for the education export sector. It merely makes a coy remark about the possibility that having a migration target might seem to imply an intention to cut migration. It then plays dumb on the question of the inclusion of students in the migration count, which of course only really matters if a targeted reduction is in store. This is probably too difficult to do, says the report, and anyway, it would not make much difference if it was done. Nearly all international students leave when their courses finish and that means the net contribution of students to the migration count is near zero.

But the difficulty of counting students within the overall tally of people movement is scarcely the point: the debate about the inclusion of students in the count is really code for “Is the government supportive of the export sector or not, given its anti-migration position?”

Because, to repeat, the government’s position on education exports has been blatantly contradictory. It wants to pretend it is cutting migration but it knows that economically this is near impossible at scale. The MAC report refuses to admit this contradiction, a large gap in its otherwise admirable habit of truth telling, and in the contentious areas it has missed the chance to steer the government towards an unambiguously supportive stance.

If the government is supportive of international education, then either the promise to cut migration should be dropped or students need to be exempted from any downward pressure on numbers.

The fact that students have not been separated from net migration targets fuels the suspicion that the government has kept in reserve the possibility of a large cut in students so as to be seen to be delivering on its migration promise. Regardless of the technical difficulty of counting students in or out, it would be enough for government simply to say that it has no intention of cutting international student numbers if the planned reduction in net migration goes ahead.

But the report provides no real reassurance on the government’s commitment to education exports, because it ducks all the issues that have arisen around the hostile processing of visas and students by the Home Office, despite the repeated evidence that was provided to it.

On the question of post-study work visas, the report provides all the background information necessary to justify a substantial change of policy and then fails to do so. It merely recommends a loosening of the stay times in which graduates seek work, and the promise of off-shore as well as on-shore processing of Tier 2 visa applications. These small changes mostly benefit PhD students. No one thinks the changes will substantially affect global patterns of demand.

The report justifies its failure to recommend the restoration of proper post-study work rights by stating that “demand for UK education should not be based on work rights”. This is nonsense, as everyone knows that in some cases education intentions and migration intentions overlap, and anyway, international student families have to find some way of paying for the high cost of living and studying in UK. It is always the case that some graduates, whoever they are, work in low-paid jobs, especially immediately after graduation.

This might have raised, for the MAC, the question of whether the present high salary cut-offs for Tier 2 visas are appropriate. But it ducked that issue too.

So we return to square one, as if the MAC report had not happened.