As the dust settles on the outcome of the 2015 general election, one group of business executives who we can be sure are less than ecstatic at what the future may hold in store for them are the university vice-chancellors. During the last parliament, Theresa May was responsible for a raft of ministerial directives aimed at reducing the number of students coming to the UK from outside the European Economic Area. She introduced a quota system for these international students, and forced (through the withdrawal of visa sponsorship licences) the virtual closure of scores of non-taxpayer-funded educational institutions. A number of taxpayer-funded universities also had their sponsorship licences suspended (notably London Metropolitan University and Glyndŵr University), and in the case of Glyndŵr the licence was only restored on condition that this Welsh university’s London campus was shut down.
As she returns to the Home Office, Theresa May – unconfined now because there are no Lib Dem ministers to box her in – must surely be relishing the unqualified implementation of that section of the Conservative party’s manifesto that addressed international students. The relevant paragraph reads as follows:
We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.
What will this mean in practice? On 'satellite campuses', we can expect the Glyndŵr precedent to be rolled out across the sector: selected universities will be told that their international student visa sponsorship licences will simply be revoked unless and until they agree to close their London satellites. And why stop with the closure of these satellites? All manner of other conditions could be attached to licence renewals – for instance the reduction or termination of partnership arrangements with private-sector providers.
On 'overstayers', it seems that May will insist – on pain of licence revocations, fines and even, conceivably, imprisonment – that universities and colleges make sure that their international students do in fact leave the UK once they have completed their studies. How, you might ask, are they supposed to do this? Only – I would have thought – by giving vice-chancellors and college principals the power to enforce deportations. In short, these manifesto commitments look set to become a lawyer’s paradise. And a vice-chancellor’s nightmare.