Third-rate universities selling visas rather than education deserve to go bust


The Department for Post-Feminist studies needs extra staff. A new meeting room for the decolonising arithmetic research group needs to be finished. And it would be a shame if the summer trip to Cuba for a conference on imperialism couldn’t be paid for.

With the Government finally starting to restrict the visa bonanza fuelling the dizzying growth in student numbers, the Left and the university lobby are beginning to panic.

The bleating is delicious to listen to. We are, we are told, about to shoot ourselves in the foot, hampering one of our premier export industries.

This is nonsense. Universities cannot expect the UK to organise its immigration system solely to suit their business model.

If they can’t get by on selling visas they will have to get by selling education instead. It’s time for the fat cat vice chancellors to earn an honest living rather than rubber stamping the applications of Deliveroo riders and expecting bailouts from a country increasingly weary of their industry.

After all, they must have known that the visa boom wouldn’t last forever. The absurdly generous system put in place after we left the European Union allowed anyone studying for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in the UK to stay and work in this country for up to two years after graduation, and even more significantly, bring dependants as well.

In the year ending last September, 153,000 dependants of the 486,000 people on “study” routes were given visas to come to the UK, compared to just 15,000 in the year ending September 2019.

This was a clear absurdity, pushing immigration to ludicrous heights. Universities that were designed to be places that primarily advance human understanding of the world were being turned into visa machines; their main role in our new high skill, high wage economy was to keep Deliveroo and Uber supplied with low-cost drivers from anywhere in the world.

It is possible the Government simply didn’t anticipate this behaviour, trusting universities to exercise restraint. If so, it was badly mistaken and Rishi Sunak has rightly clamped down on this route. The number of dependants being brought to the UK by foreign students has fallen 80 per cent, and it is likely that there will be further reductions as the year goes on.

This is good news for Britain but terrible news for the college High Table. As such, we are now witnessing an alliance between the open borders Left – taking a brief pause from its calls to bring half of Palestine to Britain on refugee visas – and the self-interested bureaucrats of the Higher Education machine worried their cushy gigs and over-inflated paychecks may suddenly be unsustainable.

Between them, they make two arguments why the clampdown is a terrible mistake. The first is that without the revenue from foreign students, fees for British students will have to rise. The second is that it might even mean that some universities go bust, destroying jobs in regional towns and cities where they are often major employers.

Seriously? If that’s the best they can come up with, then it might be time for a few first-year refresher courses. We could start with introductory economics.

Everyone agrees that higher education is a world-class British industry and one that deserves to be nurtured. Foreign students bring in valuable export earnings and some go on to be world class academics in our institutions. Others work overseas but retain links to, and affection for, Britain. No one would want to end any of that. It is a valuable asset, and one that is second only to the United States.

But that doesn’t mean that the current regime is fit for purpose. If we are bringing in the “best and brightest”, that’s hard to square with the explosion in visas for taught masters courses at lower ranked institutions. Britain’s economy would tick over just fine without them, as it did before the post-Brexit liberalisation.

And given the strong public opposition to the measure, the universities can hardly expect Westminster to allow immigration policy to be dictated by the need to keep their cashflow healthy. The current rate of net migration has become politically unsustainable, and students, with the graduate visa extensions, are playing a major role in the explosion.

We simply do not build enough homes to meet the growing demand. For that matter, we don’t build the reservoirs or transport capacity, either.

Given that we would be unlikely to change our immigration policy simply to suit other industries, there’s no reason why we should design it solely to keep higher education in good financial shape either. Policy needs to be set for the health of the overall economy and the social fabric of society, and if that means some sectors need to make changes to the way they operate then that’s just the way it goes.

If a few universities go bust in the process, so be it. There is no iron law that says the UK needs 160 odd universities. If a dozen or so were forced to merge, consolidate, or even close their doors completely, it is quite likely to be healthier for the entire system, proving that their existence can’t be guaranteed and forcing a few to rethink their business model.

If the universities can just find a professor of economics or business somewhere on the campus, they will be able to explain what happens to companies that fail to adapt to changing circumstances.

It’s time to let universities swim – or sink – on their own.