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HEi-think: Home Office seeks control of HE through visa crackdown

Home Secretary Theresa May’s proposal to expel overseas graduates from the UK appear to have been blocked by senior Tories including Chancellor George Osborne. But May’s high profile move is just another illustration of Home Office attempts to gain greater regulatory power over higher education, argues Geoffrey Alderman.


At the end of last December Home Secretary Theresa May flew a kite. She let it be known that she was pressing her Tory colleagues to agree that the party’s 2015 election manifesto should include a pledge to compel non-EU students to exit the UK on completion of their courses, and apply for post-study work visas from their countries of origin. UK HEIs would be fined, and have their international student sponsor licences revoked, if they failed to ensure that their non-EU student did actually leave the UK on completion of their studies.

May’s kite was quickly shot at by, amongst others, London Mayor Boris Johnson, inventor Sir James Dyson, and former Universities’ Minister Dave Willetts.  But the welter of media comment that it provoked ignored the wider context in which it should be seen: namely, May’s larger enterprise - to challenge the primacy of Vince Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in respect of the regulation of HE in the UK.

The tool that May has been using is the Tier 4 sponsor licence that all UK HEIs need in order to recruit international students.   The threat to revoke or even merely suspend this licence might be regarded as the “nuclear weapon” of higher education regulation in the UK – much more potent, in fact, than the threat of withdrawal of public funding (a threat that private providers can ignore) or the reality of an adverse QAA report.

The Operating Framework for Higher Education published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2013 noted that the Home Office now requires all HEIs wishing to sponsor international students - including private providers - to undergo inspection by the QAA. But what the Framework did not reveal was that  May had also agreed, secretly, to give the QAA a sweeping legal indemnity should any private provider take legal action against it.

May had already appointed the QAA as her agent to carry out the monitoring of all HEIs wishing to recruit international students. In 2012 she announced that the QAA, along with other designated inspection agencies, would be required to undertake “annual monitoring” visitations of all private providers – thus adding an additional cost to a sector already (some would say) overburdened with government-imposed charges – part of May’s war of attrition against this sub-sector. But we might also note that in August 2013 the QAA’s chief executive announced his intention to move towards “a level playing field” - insofar as the QAA’s various inspection regimes were concerned – as between the taxpayer and non-taxpayer-funded sectors. So there is every possibility that annual monitoring will, in some form, be extended to cover the entire HE sector in the UK.

These extensions of Home Office authority into the arena of higher education show every sign of continuing unabated. In November 2014 the Home Office announced that it had agreed to reinstate the previously suspended Tier 4 licence of Glyndwr University, a taxpayer-funded institution in Wales, on condition that Glyndwr closes its London campus. This is a remarkable further illustration of the use that the Home Office is making of its Tier 4 powers to interfere in the internal affairs of British higher education institutions, and another example of the Home Secretary seeking to extend and use her powers for political purposes to the detriment of UK HE and its ability to attract overseas students.


Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham and Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy