Conservatives will toughen visa rules for students

The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to toughen visa requirements for international students and raise the level of health surcharge they must pay, as part of the continuing effort to “bear down on immigration from outside the European Union”.

In their manifesto, launched on Thursday, the Conservatives, who have a substantial lead in opinion polls, say they will toughen the visa requirements for students, to “make sure that we maintain high standards”.

In addition, they will “expect students to leave the country at the end of their course, unless they meet new, higher requirements that allow them to work in Britain after their studies have concluded,” the manifesto adds.

The Immigration Health Surcharge will be raised to £450 (US$586) for international students, to cover their use of the National Health Service, which the manifesto argues is “competitive compared to the costs of health insurance paid by UK nationals working or studying overseas”.

Also, overseas students will continue to be counted in the immigration statistics and remain “within the scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration”, despite repeated pleas from university leaders to take them out of the statistics.

The manifesto commits the party to reducing net immigration from 273,000 per year to “tens of thousands”, although in seven years as home secretary Theresa May failed to reach any of the targets set for reducing immigration.

There is also a commitment to review funding for further, technical and higher education institutions to ensure it encourages the development of the skills the country needs.

A major plank of the higher education manifesto is the commitment to establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every city in England. They will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), while also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers.

Conservatives emphasise innovation

The manifesto emphasises that the United Kingdom’s long-term prosperity depends upon science, technology and innovation and pledges to bring more scientists to the UK and make the UK “the most innovative country in the world”, with universities leading the expansion in research and development capacity. The Tories want universities to replicate the success of US institutions in investing in spin-outs.

The manifesto has been criticised, however, for its lack of costings and some of the spending commitments on higher education and research are vague – “more” will be spent on research and development, although there is a promise to meet the OECD average of 2.4% of gross domestic product, or GDP, spent on research and development in 10 years, and the government will “work to build up” university investment funds.

In addition some absences are notable. There is no mention of Horizon 2020, the European Union research programme, or Erasmus+, the EU study and exchange programme for students and academics.

Universities are being left in the dark as to whether a Conservative government would attempt to buy into such programmes after Brexit or what programmes the government might invest in to replace them. The manifesto does leave the door open for science cooperation with the EU, however, by saying the UK wants to continue to collaborate in science and innovation.

“There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so it will be quite reasonable that we make a contribution,” it says.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, warned that a previous government assurance that there is no cap on the number of international students who can come to study at UK universities “must remain the case” if every region in Britain is to continue to benefit from the “huge value” universities bring to local economies, British jobs and the academic experience at our universities.

Dandridge also warned that care must be taken to ensure that talk of “toughening the visa requirements for students” does not send out a negative message to genuine international students who may be considering the UK.

She said the commitment to increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading researchers from around the world to work here is essential to ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in science, research and innovation.

“It is also encouraging to see continued collaboration with the EU on science and innovation highlighted,” she said.

Labour: ‘Education should be free’

The Labour Party manifesto, launched last Monday, confirms the commitment to scrap tuition fees for university students, revealed earlier in a leak of the draft manifesto, and to reintroduce maintenance grants to cover students’ living costs.

It points to the fact that since the Conservatives came to power, university tuition fees have been trebled to over £9,000 (US$11,730) a year, and maintenance grants have been abolished and replaced with loans.

The average student now graduates from university, and starts their working life, with debts of £44,000 (US$57,300).

The manifesto says: “Labour believes education should be free, and we will restore this principle. No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt.

“University tuition is free in many northern European countries, and under a Labour government it will be free here too.”

Like the Conservatives, Labour seeks to create an “innovation nation” but aims to have the “highest proportion of high-skilled jobs in the OECD” by 2030. It too will match OECD targets for percentage GDP spent on research and development – 3% by 2030.

But unlike the Conservatives, Labour will not target international students in efforts to reduce migration and it seeks to ensure the UK maintains its leading research role by seeking to stay part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes and by “welcoming research staff to the UK”.

The party will also seek to ensure that Britain remains part of the Erasmus+ scheme “so that British students have the same educational opportunities after we leave the EU”, it adds.

In research, it will seek to maintain “membership of – or equivalent relationships with – European organisations which offer benefits to the UK such as Euratom [the European Atomic Energy Community] and the European Medicines Agency”, the manifesto pledges.

Liberal Democrats: ‘limit Brexit damage to HE’

In their manifesto launched last Wednesday, the Liberal Democrats – who after being junior partners in the coalition with the Conservatives fell from 57 to eight seats at the 2015 election, a pummelling attributed at least partly to their betrayal of election promises on tuition fees – said the original tripling of tuition fees in 2012 was balanced by raising of the threshold for paying back student loans and better support for disadvantaged students, but this support had been eroded by the outgoing Conservative government.

They said they would reinstate maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, review university funding, and work for wider access to higher education.

The party, which is a pro-EU membership party and pro freedom of movement, pledged to:
  • • Reverse the damage to universities and academics by changing the country’s course away from a Hard Brexit.
  • • Recognise the value of international staff to universities and promote international collaboration.
  • • Fight to retain access to Horizon 2020 and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding.
  • • Do “everything we can to protect Erasmus+ and other EU-funded schemes which increase opportunities for young people".
The manifesto says science and research is vital to prosperity, but the ‘Leave’ vote has already started to affect existing and proposed research programmes.

“We will campaign against any reduction in investment in UK universities and for their right to apply for EU funds on equal terms,” the Liberal Democrats say.