Friday, June 01, 2012

UK Border Agency and The Search for Genuine Students

The Cameron government denied that the current immigration policies are hurting the UK Higher Education sector. Despite the precipitous fall in the applications to British universities, particularly from South Asia, and the near-total extinction of the private education sector which used to provide feeder routes to the universities, the government claims that their policies will encourage 'genuine' students to come to the UK, and therefore help protect the brand and the excellence of the British Higher Education. Like so many other things, they are wrong on this count too.

But, then, it is difficult to expect anything from this government anyway. Apart from protecting the banks and hobnobbing inappropriately with Murdochs, the government ministers seem incapable of getting anything done. The problem, indeed, is their world view, one so antiquated that they fail to understand or anticipate the aspirations or requirements of a modern society. With their Lib Dem stooges frozen into paralysis of ideas, the Neo-tories under Cameron is driving the country to obsolescence, with disastrous consequences for the economy and society in general, and Higher Education in particular. The rhetoric around genuine students is a clear example of how they are getting things wrong.

UKBA seems to think that the British Higher Education is full of bogus students. That is plainly wrong. The policy-makers seem to be operating with one, limited, idea of a student - with impeccable command of English and manners, Middle class parents, and a somewhat clear idea of what they want to do in life - and tolerance range thereabout which allows the inner-city state school students to sneak into the realm of genuineness. However, this idea is based on the demand for education in a matured society, where students are given a proper childhood by their parents and would want to follow their parents' paths to a good life. What is missed is that the British Higher Education is a global industry servicing a very different world, a world where students are allowed to speak in languages other than English, aspire not to follow the parents' footsteps but to do better so that they can offer their parents a comfortable retired life, and where hard work, pragmatism and ambition are the only qualifications that one need to possess. These students were flocking the British Higher Education for the last decade or so: This is exactly where the brand of British Higher Education was built. However odd it may look from the Oxfordshire county view of the world, this is the shape of the new global demand. If the British Higher Education needs to maintain its leadership status among the competing higher education systems, it can not afford to overlook the shifting demand profile of higher education.

Indeed, one would now invoke the private colleges, those favourite whipping boys of the Ministers and UK Border Agency, whose misdeeds, many will claim, brought in the new era of controls. I must declare that I am associated with the private college industry, and have written about various issues in the sector. I shall contend that most of the problems in this sector comes from poor governance and regulatory mechanisms. However, the current government has employed a lazy, unthinking, kill-all policy to close down the sector, and then ended up implementing it badly. The policy already has a crippling effect on the sector, forcing not better governance and quality standards, but disenfranchisement of students due to closure of colleges and general confusion, and this will have many consequences, including the closure of feeder routes to university courses, and an absence of home-grown education entrepreneurs, as investment shifts away from the sector in favour of Asian and African owners, who are buying into this sector mainly to take the brands and partner relationships to their own home markets. Under the public radar, this is the start of another proud industry shifting away from Britain, and this will only make the country poorer in terms of ideas and innovation.

If the government was not so out of touch, they could have seen the roles that private colleges play in context. The new global demand presents its challenges to the traditional higher education, where the conception of quality is based on selectivity and freedom of thought, rather than widening access and result orientation. Indeed, the government needed to clamp down on visa abuses and bogus colleges, but this has always been an implementation issue, which remains unresolved to date. Instead, they have taken on themselves the job of defining the 'genuine' students, a big hammer to fix a relatively tiny nail, and ended up getting it roundly wrong. 

Is there a way not to be grossly pessimistic about the British Higher Education sector in the midst of all this? It is a difficult ask, given the best idea the British Universities minister could come up with was to ask the universities to go abroad. This is a strange anomaly: The British government balks every time and shy away from necessary legislation to control banks (despite watching haplessly how failures of governance at a powerful bank, Bankia in Spain at this instance, can pull a whole country down) because the banks threaten to go aboard, but they are happy if their universities have to leave. Indeed, if public priorities have to be based on tax revenues, the universities sector and their poor international students contribute an equivalent amount in public coffers as the rich bankers, because most bankers actually don't pay taxes at all (going by the government's own admission of failure to tax the top earners, which was cited as a reason, perversely, to justify scrapping of top 50p tax rate). 

In summary, then, this is the British Higher Education's deja vu moment. One would hope that either common sense or the God will come to its rescue. If not, one should be reminded that leadership in Higher Education should not be taken as granted. The spate of uninformed visa controls may eventually lead to loss of global leadership to another country like Australia, Canada or Germany. In fact, the process may have already started.

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