Sunak’s student visas clampdown continues boom-and-bust pattern

<span>The last Conservative manifesto pledged to ‘maintain and strengthen our global position in higher education’.</span><span>Photograph: Lucidio Studio/Getty Images</span>
The last Conservative manifesto pledged to ‘maintain and strengthen our global position in higher education’.Photograph: Lucidio Studio/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak may not go down in history as “the man who destroyed UK higher education,” as one former university leader put it, but the prime minister’s sabre-rattling on international student visas could end up doing just that.

Sunak’s willingness to clamp down on international student numbers coincides with what one expert called a funding crisis for universities that could undermine the entire sector.

At the last general election, the Conservative party under Boris Johnson claimed it would “maintain and strengthen our global position in higher education”. The manifesto’s immigration section pledged: “Our student visa will help universities attract talented young people and allow those students to stay on to apply for work here after they graduate.”

But the political climate around immigration has changed dramatically. By the end of last year, James Cleverly, the home secretary, was declaring that “enough is enough” and announcing plans to review post-study work visas, which allow international graduates to stay and work in the UK for two years.

Sunak posted on social media: “Immigration is too high. Today we’re taking radical action to bring it down,” including by “banning overseas students from bringing their families to the UK”.

That was the latest twist in what the former universities minister Chris Skidmore calls the UK’s “boom and bust” policies towards international students.

Noting that the remarks by Sunak were widely reported overseas, Skidmore said: “Everyone is already saying that what the prime minister said has been catastrophic. Having the prime minister coming out and saying, ‘We are now cracking down on international students’ was an enormous signal.”

David Pillsbury, a former deputy vice-chancellor of Coventry University and a member, with Skidmore, of the International Higher Education Commission, said the government had probably “run out of legislative road” to scrap the graduate route before the general election.

“But that won’t stop these really appalling messages going out to the world when the prime minister throws red meat to his base,” Pillsbury said. “My own personal view is that he won’t want to be seen as the man that destroyed UK higher education. So I would hope that would limit the extent to which they are going to do anything else.”

Skidmore resigned the Conservative whip in January when he stood down as a MP. He worries that his former party has “lost its compass” over the issue. “Now we’ve decided to follow a sort of nihilistic, nationalist mirage of our past that we can’t get back to.

“What we’re seeing now is obviously the dying days of a party that is likely to lose power, flailing around, trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel with some messaging that is divisive, and is more about what they are against rather than what they stand for.

“Sometimes they say, ‘Yes, we’ve got the best universities in the world.’ Well, you’re about to destabilise the best universities in the world with your policies. So you either think we’ve got some of the best universities in the world, and you want to support that ecosystem, or you want to damage it. Which side are you on?”

For Mark Corver, a data analyst who advises universities, high inflation and the government’s freezing of domestic tuition fees have created financial difficulties for universities that will become worse if international students stay away.

Corver said the government was often sceptical of universities “crying” about their funding. “However, that in itself doesn’t stop a funding crisis from arising. And it’s my view, that we are now at that point,” he said.