Monday, December 06, 2010

Student Visas in Britain: To Be or Not To Be

The British government seems to have woken up and realized that at least a quarter of student visas issued by Private Colleges in Britain are abused one way or the other. Right diagnosis, possibly, but as governments tend to do - the government has zeroed on to wrong solution: They wish to bar private colleges from sponsoring foreign students altogether.

This is surely meant to please the crowd, and it will. The government is in desperate attempt to divert attention from its desertion of the British middle class, particularly in the area of university fees, and the political trickery must now whip up an another issue which pleases the voters. Foreign students have no votes, and this has surely been a prime consideration behind this policy announcement. But, I shall argue, the policy is largely misdirected.

But, before we come to this policy, a word about the muddle on university fees is well in order. You can almost spot the same confusion: To Be or Not To Be? The government can't make up its mind whether to commit to the market economy in education or not. It seems implausible that if students are made to pay the fees, the argument for which comes from private gains that a student makes out of earning the degree, why such fees will not be set against the relative scales of such gains. In summary, the question is why one would pay the same amount of money for a degree from Thames Valley University and Oxford University. Apart from the political justification that the government is trying to please the middle class, there seems to be no ethical or economic justification at all for such policy. [In fact, under the arrangements for income-contingent student loans, Higher Education should cost more money to exchequer in the short and medium term, and even in the long term]

This politics-over-economics is visible in matters of student visas, which will surely make Britain a less attractive destination for foreign students. For all the talk about clamping down on under the degree level courses, one has to set the reality that Britain's vocational education has been a huge crowd-puller. This is not because visas were plentiful, but because the British vocational offering, assisted by continued investment in the system for many years (notwithstanding the bureaucratic muddle), has a better standing than the other International Education heavyweights, like the United States or Australia. Nurses from Philippines came to Britain not just to work here, but in search of a qualification which is recognized world over and a number of them went to other countries, to Australia, United States and New Zealand among them, once they achieved their qualification. The heavy-handedness of the government in decoupling degree level and under-degree level education is ignorant of this reality altogether.

What I say is not to deny that the current student visa system is not working: All I am arguing that we are looking away from the real issues. The real disaster in the British immigration over last few years has been the efforts to take discretion away and create a points based system instead. Also, redefining the immigration service in the Border Force template, no doubt a mindset defined by post-9/11 'clash of civilization', took away the main purpose of 'immigration'. In the modern economies, immigration is talent management, and the country that loses sight of this, is doomed to lose its edge in innovation and enterprise.

One can argue discretion isn't possible in the age of mass migration, but this is precisely what we are trying to stop (I believe mass migration is an inevitable part of globalization, but I shall keep such value judgements aside). For a 'National Talent Management Service', one needs highly trained and motivated 'recruiters', at British border posts and entry points, not the Daily Mail reading xenophobes that we tend to prefer.

One more thing about Private Colleges: It is an underground business because it is meant to be one. The British governments policies towards this sector is surely anti-competitive, which denies them a level playing field with the universities at every step. In fact, the policies, like a college must be one year old to be even considered serious, and various other barriers put up on the way, make it hard for serious new entrants to enter the field. With the state of public finances, if it is as bad as it is claimed to be, the only option left to the British government is to encourage private sector investment, creativity and innovation, in the sector.

But, alas, we are choosing to look the other way.

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