Pressure mounts: who will stand up for the sector?

Published 12/02/2024

More and more headlines are levelling accusations at universities and heaping blame on international students for societies’ ills, politicians are taking aim at what they see as “hypocritical”, “elite” institutions and investigative reporters are digging for stories that will in all likelihood damage higher education’s reputation.

Our own coverage of the sector’s issues, including fraudulent documents and unethical student recruitment, has been published with the aim of holding up a mirror to the sector and identifying challenges to the long-term sustainability of the sector.

Media often sees higher education as an easy target for scoops. Take for example, the University of York in the UK which could do nothing but publish a reply clarifying that not all international students would be applicable for lower entry grades, just those that missed out on their projected assessment results.

One side of the journalistic wing will take the side of students, discussing overseas enrolments as “cash cows” or emphasising stories where international students are being let down by their institutions, while another will claim higher education is being used as a proxy for immigration or, incorrectly, claiming that overseas students are stealing seats from domestic students or creating accommodation crises.

Also in the UK, Brunel’s medical school was said to be “training mostly foreign students” last year – who was to blame in that instance? Of course the institution and the students. Not much of a charge levelled at the government which declined to fund places at the institution for domestic students.

Question everything – it applies to both higher education and journalism, but in this instance which of the under-resourced, under-prepared cornerstones of democracy seems to be failing most?

In the US conservative activist Christopher Rufo was said to be the mastermind who led ‘narrative leverage’ in the media to push Havard’s president out after her disastrous handling of antisemitism on the campus.

Are the headlines of British students being “locked out” another type of narrative leverage from other sources?

The overuse of the word ‘foreign’ in headlines is a constant annoyance. The word is so much shorter to fit in a heading than international but the implication of ‘not belonging’ – as various in the sector from James Leach, UKISA’s Advice & Training officer Rob Young and former Tory minister Chris Skidmore have all highlighted – is a reason you’ll not see The PIE refer to international students as ‘foreign’ (unless we are directly quoting someone else).

So many news stories from brilliant news organisations are stained by misconceptions, misunderstandings and editors seemingly whipping up anti-immigrant, anti-international student and anti-higher education rhetoric.

“The overuse of the word ‘foreign’ in headlines is a constant annoyance”

University of Manchester Political Science professor Robert Ford said of The Sunday Times’s pathway investigation that those reporting “don’t understand university finances at all”.

That is most likely very true. But at the same, universities don’t exactly make it easy.

Not answering Freedom of Information requests either at all or on time (in August last year – that is 2023 – I got a Refusal Notice from the University of Birmingham on an FOI sent on March 9, 2021), not wanting to discuss business or open up finances transparently due to the need to protect commercial interests.

For those not in the know, FOIs are required to be responded to within 20 working days from receipt.

There is in fact a limit to the University of Lancaster’s motto – ‘Patet omnibus veritas’ (‘Truth lies open to all’ – obviously) – especially if a nosy journalist asks about the amount spend on commission fees for an article in 2022. (I am very grateful they did answer two of three questions I put to them, unlike some other institutions!)

As well as media, politicians themselves like to view higher education as a punching bag they can batter to the glee of followers, who might be bitter or resentful of a part of society that they see as elitist.

Trump is one example of a leader who has attacked international education, including seeking to limit the OPT program and banning students from certain Muslim-majority countries. Maybe if his real-estate specialist Trump University were more successful with the international market (or any market for that matter), he would show more openness and compassion to international students.

Hungarian president Viktor Orbán’s take down of the Central European University has been well documented, as has the country’s challenges to not only the EU’s exchange program, Erasmus Plus, but also the bloc as a whole.

The election of Geert Wilders – the man formerly banned from the UK and accused of Islamophobia – in the Netherlands sent shockwaves through the country and its international education sector (it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll be able to form a government). The rise of AfD in Germany is also cause for concern, as is the continued popularity of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage in the UK & Pauline Hanson in Australia.

As leader of the right-wing populist One Nation party, Hanson has called for international students to be stripped of work rights and banning ‘foreigners’ from investing in property in Australia.

And in the US, the self-proclaimed ‘land of the free’, Republicans – who so often decry wokery as curtailing their right to free speech – target international students who have voiced support for Palestinians during the ongoing Hamas war with Israel. Obviously under some circumstances free speech doesn’t apply to all.

Why is it that we so often hear compliments of a country’s higher education sector we need to turn to politicians from other nations? Recently, I spoke with Kazakhstan’s minister of higher education who was more than happy to praise the UK’s higher education sector.

UUK chief executive Vivienne Stern was on a mission to get the UK education minister or the minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education at the Conservative Party conference last year to say anything nice about UK universities.

Nothing is beyond reproach, not even universities, international students or higher education. But someone needs to stand up for all of these when and as required. Words mean something. Reputation means something.

Higher education is getting flogged left, right and centre and international students are continuing to be scapegoated. It’s time the sector unapologetically stood up for itself.

About the author: Viggo Stacey is the editor of The PIE News. If you’d be interested in writing an op-ed for The PIE, please get in touch via [email protected].

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