Amber Rudd: the Speech that Should Have Been

Graham Able, Chair of ExEdUk, reflects on Amber Rudd’s speech to Conservative Party Conference. 

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary’s sabre-rattling speech signalled a further potential tightening of the visa system for international students. Although light on detail, it promised an increasingly combative approach towards the UK’s education sector. Speaking at Conservative party conference, Rudd floated a number of potential changes principally questioning whether visa rules for students should be tailored to a particular institution’s quality.

Given that a clear majority of Conservative voters would prefer to see international student numbers return to growth, not reduced further, this represents a sadly missed opportunity to reset relations with this critical export sector and support its already delicate reputation abroad. In the context of dramatic debates over freedom of movement and the UK’s commitment to the single market following the fallout from Brexit, there is limited political capital to be gained from the continued degrading of the UK’s well respected education system and the politicisation of international students; even in rhetoric.

Instead Amber Rudd could have focused her speech on the potential for international students to contribute to the upcoming industrial strategy; particularly in regenerating struggling UK cities. She could have committed to working closely with ministerial colleagues from departments such as DfE and BEIS in order to support their wider aims. She could have applauded the Higher Education and Research Bill for introducing reforms which can better support the student visa system. She didn’t. She opted for fear – politics over people and the economy.

Take the issue of the value of international students to the economy. Amber Rudd could have referenced the countless economic impact studies which highlight the positive contribution international students make to the local and regional economies. She could have stated that the recruitment of just two international students leads to the creation of one job. That their impact is most profound in struggling post-industrial cities – places such as Hull, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Bradford and Stoke. Precisely the places that the Government’s industrial strategy wants to focus on. In these cities international students are driving the regeneration of urban centres by stimulating British and international investment in capital projects.

Amber Rudd could have been bold and instead of suggesting that the recruitment of international students would be limited to the top tier of British Universities, often in well-off cities, she could have said that the Home Office would support institutions in coastal and post-industrial cities in boosting their educational exports. Doing so would be a quick and costless way of stimulating economic regeneration. She instead chose to question whether some international students really “[add] value to the economy.”

On the issue of visa differentiation, Amber Rudd could have applauded the Higher Education and Research Bill for introducing reforms which will better support the infrastructure of the student visa system. The Bill will introduce a “single route” into the sector which will allow a clear and transparent way to regulate colleges and universities and ensure international students receive only high quality education. She could have congratulated her colleague Jo Johnson on his landmark Bill and committed to working with him to incorporate its regulatory proposals as a way to strengthen the student immigration system.

She could have even patted the Home Office on the back for the role they have played in closing down colleges which were not providing the best value for students. It would have reinforced how great the UK’s education sector is, and sent a positive message to international students. The Government has their best interests at heart. Instead she opted to give a misleading impression of patchy quality which will only hurt the UK’s reputation.

Amber Rudd had the opportunity to commit to a joined-up approach across government, which strengthens education opportunities for UK students, economic growth, jobs and our global position. The UK education sector is the best in the world, from school, to college, to university. We as a sector have worked hard to not only maintain but to enhance that reputation. We appear to have a new Home Secretary who not only ignores this greatness, but actively seeks to devalue it; more intent on unfounded political point scoring than protecting the UK’s fifth largest export sector.

Amber Rudd may have missed an opportunity to shift her focus and language this week, but there is still an opportunity to make amends and support the education sector and the work of other Ministers to increase its value to the UK. The policy direction of the past seven years has already cost the UK economy £1.11 billion, with a further £8 billion in opportunity cost forecast by the end of next year. It is time for the Home Office to end its isolation, join with the rest of Government and work towards a solution which will ensure their voters get what they want – more international students.