Brian Bell defends MAC report on UK radio

Published 14/05/2024

Professor Brian Bell has defended the MAC’s recommendation to leave the two-year graduate route intact on UK radio and underlined, “the mistake is to think that you can separate” the student pathway and graduate route and remain competitive.

He conceded that the economic benefit of the post-study period covered by the graduate route in terms of income generated was less substantial than the overall contribution of international students who pay high fees to study in the country as well as a health surcharge.

But Bell said the experience of international students was not dissimilar to UK students initially working in low-skilled or lower paid jobs immediately after graduation.

He was clear on the imperative of competitive positioning: “Many [international students] do want to have that work experience opportunity when they graduate and will choose the country they go to on that basis.”

Bell is chair of the Migration Advisory Committee which responded to the government’s request for a rapid review.

When challenged by the interviewer on the proposal made by one Conservative MP that students might be better served to have a grace period of six months to find a higher salaried job, Bell again underlined that many students would simply vote with their feet.

“It’s almost like we can pretend that we’re not competing in international markets for some reason,” he said of that suggestion.

“Australian and Canadian universities … do compete with us. And if they’re offering really attractive post-study work opportunities, why would students choose to come here when they can go there instead?”

The radio program on BBC Radio 4 also heard from Conservative MP Neil O’Brien who claimed the policy was effectively allowing universities to sell immigration and called the report a “whitewash”.

He argued for separation of study routes and work routes and compared average full-time earnings of Britons (£35,000) with the average earnings of those on the graduate route at £17,800 [FTE earnings are actually documented at £26,460].

He claimed that with large numbers of graduate route visa holders coming from “low income, developing countries”, this meant their main motivation was to work.

“This is a loophole into low wage labour,” he said of that suggestion.

O’Brien also took aim at the profile of institutions seeing most of the graduate route visa holders, claiming “we’re expanding our least research-intensive, least prestigious” universities.

But Jane Harrington, vice chancellor at University of Greenwich, challenged this “outdated binary” position on quality higher education provision.

I obviously represent University Alliance and University of Greenwich is a non-Russell Group [institution], but we’re professional and technical universities that train up people into so many of their professional careers that actually we need in this country. ”

She continued, “I think the term is a bit dated to use, and I think it’s a binary split that I don’t believe exists anymore.”

“If students come to Greenwich, we’re equipping them to go into the very professions – and let’s use examples like, nursing, architecture – that we desperately need young people to go into.”

“Why would students choose to come here when they can go there instead?”

Harrington also noted the financial threat of reducing the UK’s appeal to students who wanted the ability to consider post-study work in the country.

Any further restriction by the government, which is due to respond to the recommendations, would make it “more difficult for universities not to go into deficit and therefore make it more difficult not to have further restructuring redundancies”, she said. “So it will have a dramatic effect.”

Given that it is such a large export industry for us, I’m not sure why they would want to do that, but that would be my concern.”

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