Holding Boris to account over Brexit

16 October 2016

There is nothing more uncomfortable for a government Minister than a powerful former adviser venting his ire in the national press about your ideas – and then finding leading newspapers supporting the arguments.

Former Cameron adviser Steve Hilton has lambasted Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s “divisive and repugnant” plans to list every foreign worker. He wants to take the ‘F’ word –foreigners – out of the debate and get the government to push for an “Open Brexit”. That is where the red carpet is rolled out for the world’s best entrepreneurs and, yes, even for – don’t whisper it any more - ‘S’ for students – “people who would contribute to our economy and society.”

Hilton was a Brexiter – not one of my normal allies – but he reveals in the Sunday Times how Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were pushing during the Referendum campaign for an open, outward looking enterprising nation. UK Vice Chancellors, struggling to get traction in this debate, need to seize upon this division within the government and push the leading Leave campaigners to deliver on at least one of their promises.

Stories of academics who can’t hold onto positions because of their country of origin, as we have seen at the LSE this week, are an affront to any tolerant, democratic society. We may have expected to take up arms against bigotry in totalitarian countries, but it is now being openly touted at Conservative Party conferences, and is even being applauded.

It is time our Vice Chancellors put the ‘S’ word centre stage in this debate and for them to tell our Foreign Secretary in plain English, not in Latin (which he is so fond of), what is happening to our academic heritage while he sits conjugating verbs at our Cabinet table.

While they are at it, they should point out to him what the ‘foreigners’ are doing just across the water, in Ireland.

Our Irish cousins and their government are making concrete plans to ensure their universities will become even more attractive to the cosmopolitan student world. International students studying engineering, science and business in Ireland are virtually certain of internships and work experience as part of their undergraduate degree course. They are offered study and work experience programmes at US and global universities – in some cases even leading to twin degrees – which are made all the more attractive by guarantees they will be at Irish prices.Over 90 per cent of graduates from the leading Irish universities are getting jobs.

At the end of either undergraduate or postgraduate study, international students in Ireland are granted visas for a further 12 months to secure a job. If that job is in one of the government’s chosen sectors (IT, bio-tech, engineering and business), then it is almost certain to lead to a work permit and permanent residency.

Irish universities have been all too ready to build on the UK’s Brexit dilemma, and there is a strong rumour amongst admissions tutors that the Irish will shortly extend to international students the right to a full 24-month stay in which to find work. If they do so, they may even be free to work in Ireland for an undefined period, offering a route to residency right across Europe.

As one admissions tutor put it to me last week, “We want these people. Our country needs these people. Our mission is to become the hub in Europe amongst English-speaking universities for the best and brightest students the world has to offer.”

But the Irish are not the only ‘foreigners’ making plans to raid our universities for top students. The Dutch and the US are in on the scene too. The University of Amsterdam is now advertising over 150 courses in English at prices which will make UK directors of finance have nightmares. American colleges with European campuses are offering twin-location courses – at the European price, which can be as much as 50 per cent less than if the degree was done solely in the US.

Irish universities are reporting a massive increase in interest from the Indian sub-continent. University College Dublin has launched a four-person office in Gurgaon, just on the outskirts of Delhi. And the American College Show in London recently was elbow to elbow all day every day as both UK and international students in the UK scrambled for offers.

Politicians might not take much notice of opinion polls but they do notice if the electorate start voting with their feet. This could happen to UK vice-chancellors too. In the run-up to Christmas, they need to order from Santa large bottles of anti-complacency cream and rub it all over their top management teams.

If they want some suggestions to put to Boris, here arethreecore principles which he will find hard to argue against.

  • We need to attract the best, and then keep them. Offering two-year work permits after a degree could do that. This would also prevent them from “disappearing” from Border Agency view at the end of their course – they would have no need to do so. We must bring the world’s best brains into our UK family and harness them for the benefit of the whole country. This is what he was saying during the campaign; ask him to deliver on it now.
  • International students are a social as well as economic asset, so take them out of the immigration statistics altogether and clearly identify their special status.
  • If international students are granted work-stay visas, they should be required to patent their inventions in this country, thereby adding still further to the UK’s image as an entrepreneurial hub – something that a Foreign Secretary can be proud of.

This may not be the message coming out of the Conservative Party conference, but Vice Chancellors should not be put off by that. The Conservative Conference is for political anoraks – the people who deliver leaflets, make phone calls and top up the Party’s coffers. It isn’t really a serious political event at all, which is why Mrs May must be shocked that after her speech and that of her Home Secretary they together managed to knock thousands of pounds off the value of their supporters savings thanks to the plunge in Sterling.

There is now another crack in the Cabinet door, and Boris is big enough to squeeze it open some more. Vice Chancellors must take this uncomfortable split in the Tories to give him a push.

David Boddy was political press secretary to former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and is head of schools partnerships at SI-UK Education Council, which helps international students to apply to UK universities.