Alarm bells are ringing in the British higher education sector following the surprising election results earlier this month. The Conservative party won a solid majority on 7 May, with a whopping 331 seats in Parliament, in contrast to Labour’s 232. David Cameron is thus back in Downing Street, with more freedom than ever to set in motion the Conservative agenda, which includes tighter immigration controls and a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Both might have tremendous implications for British higher education, and concerns are being voiced, notably by Universities UK.
The Conservative election platform promises to “reform the student visa system,” with an emphasis on reducing the number of student who overstay once their visas expire. They plan to do this partly by placing more responsibility on visa sponsors, i.e. universities, once students complete their courses. Holding universities accountable for whether foreign students comply with the terms of their visa once they have graduated puts a huge burden on the institutions, and turns the admission of foreign students into risky business.
Then, there is the question of whether foreign students will be included in net migration figures. The new Cameron government has pledged to “keep their ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands.” If, as many fear, this means that students will be counted in the net migration figures, universities can expect their international student populations to shrink even further.
The point that is raising most alarm, however, is the UK’s questioned membership of the European Union. British research and innovation has benefitted tremendously from EU grants, both financially and scientifically. As a Guardian article points out, “British scientists have earned more back in grants than the UK has contributed in every year of the scheme’s existence.” Indeed, according to Universities UK, British universities benefit from GBP 1.2 billion a year in European research funding. Were the UK to leave the EU, the nation would be reclassified as a third country entity, which would of course severely limit access to Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes.
Although the outcome of a referendum –which could be held as early as next summer –is far from clear, interest groups have begun campaigning for continued EU membership, highlighting the tremendous benefits the UK derives from the Union. First Universities UK, and now Scientists for EU, a collective of universities, researchers, students and more, are raising their voices to ensure that the British public is properly informed of what the EU means to British education, research, innovation, and economy.