It’s not often that I agree with Boris Johnson…

But in this case, I do. The context here is the same changing profile of international students in the UK, that I drew attention to in my previous post. There I talked mainly about the future effect of exchange rates on the affordability of UK university places for Chinese students. The longer term story is about UK visa and immigration controls, which has left students from many countries believing that they are unwanted in the UK and indeed viewed with suspicion. Johnson (the Boris version) has written to Johnson (the Jo version) asking for urgent reforms to the student visa system, as the number of Indian students coming to the UK has halved in the past three years (a drop of 20,000 per year). An historical and hugely beneficial relationship with India is in danger. The Government’s official line is that there is no limit on the number of students coming into the country; technically true, but then there is also no limit on the number of people who can hit themselves over the head with a ballhammer. Yet the popularity of that particular pastime has never been high. In other words, it is not an undistorted market. Not surprisingly, those missing 20,000 students, plus a fair few more, are studying in the US.

The Jo version, on his part, has been talking recently about prioritising teaching quality, and about encouraging competitiveness in the HE sector. On the latter point, it is worth noting that there is not, and never has been, a truly open market in HE in this country. For one thing, the ancient Universities were given truly enormous assets at the moment of their founding, and in the centuries thereafter, most frequently at the largess of the governments of the era. When Staffordshire (for example) was made a University, no one said ‘Hey, here’s a billion quid — go out and be world-class!’. For another, there are all kinds of caps and incentives and variable bits of funding straight from Government coffers. The £9000 fee cap is the most obvious; but lesser known is the funding received to aid disabled students, which has fallen through the floor, disproportionately affecting students without financial assets of their own. In future, I suggest not only that Jo listen to Boris, but also that he mask his patent ignorance of market economics.

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