Chris Nicholson is director and chief executive of CentreForum, the liberal think tank.
For a party which is pro-private enterprise and keen to boost economic growth, the Conservatives' policies towards control of student immigration defy logic. Of course there have been past abuses of the system, where bogus colleges have brought in students with no real intention of studying, but much of this abuse has been stamped out by changes introduced by the last government. Several thousand institutions that were previously legally able to enrol visa students were dropped from the list. So the fact that the Coalition has now tightened the visa controls further is both counterproductive and hitting the wrong target.
Why does it matter? Well, first, overseas students contribute billions of pounds a year to the UK economy (estimates range from £3-8billion). This is a fast growing market internationally, estimated by McKinsey to be growing at seven percent per annum. There are many countries such as Australia, US and Singapore which are keen to attract students who would otherwise be applying to the UK. Second, around half of non-EU students at UK universities have previously done courses at language schools, or 'pathway colleges'. So clamping down on students applying to these colleges will likely cut the total number of students studying in the UK, as we warned in our 2011 report 'Pathway to prosperity' (pdf).
Tom Burkard undertakes Education research for the Centre for Policy Studies and is a member of the NAS/UWT and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Buckingham. He is currently working to start a free special school staffed exclusively by teachers with experience in the armed forces.
The new Higher Education White Paper is not without merit—no doubt it cost David Willetts a few bruised shins to convince his mandarins that good universities should be allowed to expand. Likewise, one suspects that the proposal to allow private universities to compete on an equal footing was stoutly resisted by the statist mentality that prevails in Whitehall.
Alas, all these benefits cannot possibly compensate for the Philistine message conveyed by the proposal to name and shame the 'dead-end courses' that don't lead to good jobs. No doubt many of the offerings Willetts has in mind are pretty dreadful, but his announcement betrays some very fundamental—and destructive—misconceptions about higher education that have taken hold in the political nation.
A generation or two ago, it was assumed that learning was a good thing for its own sake. There was a general understanding that the health of any civilisation depended upon the wisdom of its leaders, and that universities existed to preserve and nurture the cultural and intellectual life of the nation. The excellence of our universities was assumed: academic freedom was taken for granted, and government regulation was unthinkable.
Now, parents and students view higher education as a credentialing system—a passport to a professional salary. Vice-chancellors tell us that we need a highly-trained workforce to meet the challenges of the 21st century economy. Politicians from all parties view it as an instrument for social engineering.
The report notes that "the Government’s total student debt outstanding is already £25 billion and is expected to rise to £55 billion by 2018." It continues: "In short, particularly if the cap on top-up fees is raised [which Policy Exchange supports], the size of the loan book is set to spiral out of control."
The report's remedy is for the introduction of a private but regulated loan scheme for wealthier students:
"This private loans scheme would be exclusively for students from the highest income backgrounds, but the Government should ensure that banks charge below the commercial rate of interest so that all students continue to have access to some sort of subsidised loan scheme. Creating a new private loans scheme for these low risk borrowers would help to reduce the burden of Government student loan debt, and target Government financial aid at those who need it most."
Authors: Anna Fazackerley, Martin Smith and Alex Massey
Publication date: 23 November 2009
The report is critical of the current Government's policies towards universities and calls for more separation between research and teaching functions at Britain's universities. In addition, the report suggests that there should be further measures to encourage universities to work with SMEs in order to make graduates more employable once they complete their degrees. Furthermore, the authors argue that the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme which places graduates with companies for one to three years should be expanded to address the current high levels of graduate unemployment.
Author: Alison Wolf
Publication date: 3 November 2009
The report is critical of the Government's centralised planning and constant reorganisation of the further education sector. The author claims that many of the qualifications that the Government promotes and funds directly have no economic value and that £2billion is wasted on funding courses which have no net benefit to individual learners or society at large. The report suggests that rather than subsidies being paid by the Government to employers to fund training, the subsidies should be paid directly to individuals.
Author: Anna Fazackerley and Tom Richmond
Publication date: 28 September 2009
This report highlights the failure of the Labour Government to improve standards in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and the negative impact it is having for employers in the UK. According to a recent CBI survey 92% of firms across all sectors require people with STEM skills but 59% are experiencing problems locating these people. The report criticises a lowering of standards in STEM subjects which have allowed the Government to make bold claims but done little to prepare STEM graduates for the world of work.
Authors: Anna Fazackerley, Professor Claire Callendar, Julian Chant and David Wilkinson
Publication date: 18 August 2009
The report calls for a better financial settlement for the third of undergraduates who are part-time students. The authors are critical of the fact that part-time students have to pay their fees upfront and 90% receive no financial help from the Government in contrast to full-time students. The report makes the point that if part-time students did receive some financial support then some full-time students might be persuaded to go part-time and have a job as well thus helping the economy. The report recommends bringing part-time students' eligibility for a partial tuition fee grant into line with full-time students and syphoning off funding from the Government's £150million University Challenge scheme.
Author: Sir Cyril Taylor GBE
Publication date: 25 June 2009
The author who is the Chancellor of Richmond, the American International University in London, calls for the UK university system to rely less on state control and offer more diversity by following the approach taken by American universities. The report argues that universities should be allowed to control their own finances, set their own tuition fees and decide on the number of students they enrol. In addition, the author suggests UK universities should do more to attract private sector finance for capital building projects and research. In addition, the report suggests that there should be a return to one Department for Education and that the splitting of education policy between the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has not been a success.
Author: Robin Simcox
Publication date: March 2009
This report is a study analysing the high levels of foreign funding entering British academia. The paper illustrates that university subjects designated as "strategically important" by the British Government are receiving large financial payments from foreign donors. According to the author many of these donors are linked to despotic regimes known for perpetuating human rights abuses.