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The Tories fail another exam

There’s a simple way to save our crisis-hit universities. But Rishi Sunak is the only one who can’t see it

Image: The New European/Getty

Believe it or not, Rishi Sunak has a first-class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University. So let us pose the kind of question covering all three subjects that a finals student might face:

“One of the few economic jewels in the crown for a medium-sized European country is its excellent university sector. It is so internationally successful that the fees of domestic students are heavily subsidised by the foreign students desperate to study there.

“The economy gains massively, companies and businesses invest in the country because of its international student appeal, and the government’s own experts tell it the scheme is working well and that it adds significantly to the country’s wealth. But the government has made an arbitrary promise to cut immigration at any price.

“It is therefore willing to sacrifice the university sector, bankrupt colleges, reduce economic growth and lie about the issue to try to win some votes from the far right. What is your advice to the prime minister of this country?”

This should really not be a difficult question for Sunak to answer. This first rule of political life is always “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”.

Yet his fin de siècle government cannot even do that. The PM is apparently “considering his options” about whether or not to cause a meltdown in our university sector that would reverberate across the country, despite all the evidence – duh! – telling him not to do it.

The government’s own Migration Advisory Service, which was asked to rapidly review the university visa scheme in the hope that it would find something wrong, has told the PM instead that it is “working well”, that there is “no evidence of any significant abuse of the graduate route” and that it should remain.

The Office for Students’ annual report into the financial health of universities, meanwhile, has found that the sector is over-reliant on cash from foreign students. Given the sharp falls in foreign student numbers both from the EU post-Brexit and further abroad because of government restrictions on undergraduates bringing their families with them when they study, this means the sector is already living beyond its means. 

There is no question that Britain’s universities are in crisis. How do we know? Because earlier this year, the hapless science secretary, Michelle Donelan, said: “Do we think it’s a crisis? No, we do not.”

Several universities are now in real danger of going bust. Imagine the impact just one closing would have on the local economy, on the local workers it employs, on the local shops, bars and cafes, on local landlords who rent to staff and students. Now imagine that happening again and again, all over the country.

The obvious solution to prevent this campus apocalypse would be more foreign students and/or higher student fees, which haven’t increased for years despite high inflation. The government got away with holding down domestic student fees because the universities made up the lost income by attracting more overseas students and charging them more. Now they want to close off even this avenue.

Still, no educational institution is likely to go belly up before the general election, so why should the government care? And put up domestic student fees just before that election? Are you mad?

Instead, Sunak and Jeremy Hunt will just try to squeeze the sector’s finances from both ends – a sure-fire recipe for disaster – in order to try to bring down headline immigration numbers, knowing full well they won’t be around to sort out the mess.

Much of the damage has already been done, with the Financial Times reporting that “Enroly, a web platform used by one in three international students for managing university enrolment, said deposits to a representative sample of 24 British universities had declined 57% year on year as of May.”

Then, of course, there is the wider economic damage that restricting student numbers will do to the British economy. Several ministers have warned the PM about this, and the Department for Education has calculated, according to the Times, that halving student numbers would take 0.5% off the UK’s GDP.

More warnings have come in a letter sent to the PM by a group of senior business leaders, warning that weakening the UK’s universities would make the UK a less attractive place in which to invest. Bosses of companies such as Siemens and Anglo American warned that they were becoming “deeply concerned” by widening funding gaps and declining international student applications that were “a result of government policy”.

The voices of common sense are loud and clear. But Sunak hears only the shrill sound of the far right. 

He is having poison poured into his ears by those claiming that we already educate too many young people to graduate level, that undergraduate visas are a secret backdoor immigration route that must be closed, that foreign students “steal” places from British undergraduates, that too many courses are not good enough and a waste of money. All are nonsense. All are lies.

But lies and nonsense are what this government uses as facts and evidence. A bright 10-year-old could give the right answer to the PPE question at the start of this article. Yet an answer continues to elude our prime minister.

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