MAC, not the knife

As universities in both the UK and Australia fight to protect vital international recruitment, there is also a need for fresh thinking for future prosperity

May 23, 2024
Three knife blades cutting through a book to illustrate MAC, not the knife
Source: Getty images/MAC montage

Responding to the latest episode in the tug of war between politicians intent on curbing immigration and universities reliant on international students to keep the lights on, a vice-chancellor had this to say: “For about 20 years governments on both sides of politics have happily allowed us to increase the number of international students and we use their tuition fees to educate them, but also to close the funding gap.

“If those student numbers fell there would be a further black hole…so the government would have to work out how you make the financial model of universities viable.”

No, this was not a UK vice-chancellor mulling over the implications if the government were to ignore the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and slash the graduate visa; it was Mark Scott of the University of Sydney reflecting on proposed recruitment caps in Australia.

Which offers a few insights: the first is that, across the developed world, the political weather vane is pointing firmly in one direction on the issue of immigration; the second is that a left-leaning government (as in Australia) is no guarantee of a change in the weather; the third is that the funding system that England and Australia largely share is now so reliant on international students that this shift in the political balance has the potential to spell catastrophe for many universities.

Compounding these three horsemen of the higher education apocalypse is the fact that public support for expanded (and expanding) university systems has withered, while economic gloom, inflation and other pressures leave little scope for solutions.

One of the key concerns about the MAC’s rapid review – which could not have been clearer in both rejecting the idea that the graduate route is being exploited and in making the case for its retention – is the mismatch between how the two sides of the debate view the same facts.

For proponents of the MAC view, the fact that the graduate route has expanded the pool of universities able to recruit internationally beyond the Russell Group is a positive; to critics of university expansion it is the opposite – evidence that many of the students coming to the UK are not, as the government puts it, the world’s “brightest and best”.

So while on one level the MAC review was a great relief, on another it is likely that it has simply staved off a line of attack that will inevitably continue, particularly in the run-up to a general election.

Underpinning this debate is the desperate need for solutions to the funding crisis that has made international fees such a sine qua non, so in that spirit we commissioned a group of serious thinkers to give us one big idea for how the next government could do something different.

The results, some more provocative than others, range from a radical separation of tuition fees from loan caps (courtesy of Ian Walmsley, provost of Imperial College London) to a rebalancing of funding towards high-cost STEM subjects (from Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London).

Also among the contributors is Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, who emphasises the need for a national industrial or innovation strategy to harness the extraordinary potential of universities to deliver for the country by powering economic growth.

That, arguably, would be the single biggest “win” for the higher education sector in its efforts to restore belief among the public that we need more, not less, of what universities deliver.

But as well as offering her thoughts on the innovation ecosystem, Professor Tracey is equally clear about the importance of tackling the issue of the day: “We also need a rational and positive approach to international students and collaborations,” she writes.

The Oxford vice-chancellor (who, let’s not forget, runs the world’s number one ranked university – a national asset if ever there was one) says she “cannot stress enough” the extent to which international collaboration and talent drive other priorities, including the innovation that will power future prosperity.

“Nor should we underestimate the soft diplomacy that our international students and staff undertake abroad, having lived, studied and worked in the UK. This needs to be nurtured and supported, while recognising there are some challenges to address.”

We hope these ideas land in fertile soil – if not with the current government, then with the next one.

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