Former Universities Minister Jo Johnson and brother of the British Prime Minister has made a radical call to scrap much of the Conservative Party’s approach to international higher education for the last decade in a string of new policy recommendations 

In a blog last year ‘Welcome change in UK mood music to international students’ I wrote more in hope than anything else that the UK government appeared to be finally waking up to “the need to end the anti-foreigner tone to how Great Britain had been projecting itself to the world” since the Brexit referendum and the “hostile environment” that led to the Windrush scandal.

Jo Johnson, brother of UK Prime Minister Boris

My reason for optimism was the new ‘International Education strategy: global potential, global growth policy paper’ produced in March 2019 jointly by the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade with its emphasis on upward student mobility into the UK.

Breath of fresh air

I called it “a breadth of fresh air” when it was announced during a lull in the pre-Brexit posturing that led to the downfall of UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who is well remembered for refusing to countenance taking international students out of her net inward migration target of less than 100,000-a-year.

Of course, a lot has happened since then, including Boris Johnson and his mastermind tactician Dominic Cummings winning a “stonking majority” at the December 2019 general election by wrapping the Conservative Party in the ‘Get Brexit Done’ flag.

And we’ve had the coronavirus in which the very same senior policy adviser Cummings played a “pivotal” role – to use the in-word when writing about anything to do with COVID-19. Who can forget his drive to Durham and Barnard Castle during the early days of the lockdown in spite of the ‘Stay at Home’ messaging to stop the spread of the virus. But that’s another story!

What I want to do here is consider how the intervention of Jo Johnson, who had several stints at Conservative Government Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (July to September 2019 and before that from 2015 to 2018) fits into the rethink of the UK’s approach to international higher education.

His paper ‘Universities open to the world – How to put the bounce back in Global Britain’ was published on 15 June 2020 by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Harvard Kennedy School and it is certainly worth a read with its clarion calls to slash “off-putting red tape” for overseas students and be bolder than last year’s target of boosting international student numbers by 25% to 600,000 in the next decade.

Overcoming COVID and Brexit

It does run to a few too many pages for the Prime Minister’s famously short attention-span, but helpfully the King’s College press office put out a one-side of A4 summary which provides the headlines to a strategy designed to help UK higher education overcome the twin shocks of COVID-19 and Brexit.

After lamenting how universities have been “tied down by bureaucracy, obsessions with poorly-crafted immigration targets and petty rules”, Jo Johnson’s paper calls on the government to “turbocharge” the UK’s competitive pitch to international students by doubling the UK’s post-study work visas (Graduate Immigration Route) from two to four years.

It also wants to capitalise on the post-study work visas, which seem to be little understood by potential international students outside India, and specifically it wants to double student numbers from India by putting the country alongside China in the “low-risk country category”.

End hostile bureaucracy 

Former UK Home Secretary and PM Theresa May
Image: PoliticsHome

In one of several digs at the Theresa May government in which he once served, Jo Johnson calls for an end to the “hostile bureaucracy” and says the Home Office should step back and hold universities to account for any non-compliance (by which I think he means they should be hammered if they accept foreign students on courses whose command of English is adequate, which I thought was supposed to be happening now).

In a sign that even he, once one of the most pro-European of Conservative government ministers, accepts the inevitable and that the UK will probably fail to be part of the European Union’s new Erasmus+ academic mobility programme, the paper suggests the British Council should be re-focused.

It sounds like he wants it to become more of a marketing organisation rather than simply encouraging greater cultural understanding between the UK and the rest of the world, with the paper saying the British Council should “establish and operate a world-class global student mobility network to replace UK participation in Erasmus”.

Education export goals

The whole report is written in the punchy style of the former Financial Times journalist that Jo Johnson is and his quote at the end of the A4 press briefing sums how vital it is that Great Britain gets its strategy right, when he says: “International education is one of the UK’s few globally competitive sectors. Income from it makes it possible to undertake loss-making research and deliver strategically-important lab and studio-based courses costing more than domestic fees. To secure our post-Brexit future as a knowledge economy and trading nation, we need to go all out to achieve ambitious education export goals.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Image: PoliticsHome

The ’bounce back’ recommendations from Jo Johnson’s paper follow the early move by his brother Boris after he seized power in ripping up Theresa May’s student curbs.

Under rules drawn up when Mrs May was Home Secretary in 2012, international students studying in the UK had the length of their stay to try and find work after graduating cut from two years to four months. That drastic reduction has been blamed by many in the sector for the dramatic decline in overseas students coming to the UK in key markets, most notably from Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Best in class

What Jo Johnson is calling for would put the UK in the ‘best in class’ category for international education competitiveness in terms of post-study work opportunities. If accepted by brother Boris, it would certainly be eye-catching for prospective students weighing-up their options about whether to commit to their dream of studying abroad after the COVID-19 health emergency.

At the moment the best post-study work opportunities can be found in Australia, which allows international students to stay from 2-4 years to find work, and Canada where graduating students from abroad have three years to find work.

Quite a change from Theresa May’s message “Come, Study and Leave” message to international students, which saw the UK lose ground to most of its rivals for globally-mobile students looking for degrees taught in English.

Janet Ilievea, founder of Education Insight

This is important stuff, as a study by Education Insight founder Dr Janet Ilieva on whether the UK can regain lost ground in attracting students from key markets highlighted at the 2020 International Higher Education in April. I summarised the main findings in a report for University World News on 24 April 2020.

Jo Johnson’s uses some of the data produced by Dr Ilieva and Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International in his report to highlight the scale of the challenges faced to make UK international education competitive again around the world.

“Excellent analysis”

Commenting on the new paper, Dr Ilieva told me: “This is an excellent analysis of the UK’s competitive positioning in the international student market place. It accurately captures the importance of supportive student visas, the lack of which were critical deterrents for global mobility to the UK over the past decade. 

“Government-wide support for the new newly proposed policy measures is essential if the UK is to regain lost market share. Many of the recommendations rightly focus on supportive and flexible student visa packages, post-study work visas and easing the travel restrictions for international students.

“While the government’s international education strategy is export-focused, there is an opportunity for the UK to retain global leadership in international education while making a bold statement about its contribution to sustainable development through higher education partnerships, research collaborations and transnational education.” 

Not much on TNE or research

I was surprised there wasn’t more about growing transnational education, or TNE, especially now health & safety in studying abroad is weighing heavily on the minds of potential globe-trotting students and their parents who may find the economic costs of supporting their offspring for three years or more at university abroad too much to bear in the post-coronavirus world.

The importance – or not – of online learning in the long term for international higher education did get a few mentions, but this seemed more concerned with trying to get those countries not keen on digital qualifications to accept their worth.

Research didn’t get as much of a look in as I expected either. 

The damage to UK universities of having to cut direct association with the EU’s Horizon Europe 2021-27 programme if negotiations between Britain and the European Commission come to nothing was highlighted.

Brexit blues

But, as with the likelihood of the UK having to quit Erasmus+, Jo Johnson seems almost resigned to his brother ending up with a no, or not much of a Brexit deal to protect the close links with Europe that British researchers still crave at the end of the transition period for the UK leaving the European Union on 31 December 2020.

Most HE stakeholders in England welcomed the spirit of Jo Johnson’s recommendations, but Carol Monaghan, the Scottish Nationalist MP for Glasgow North West, was quick to claim on twitter that the SNP had been pushing for four-year study visas for ages.

“Why didn’t Jo Johnson make this happen when he was Universities Minister? Or can he only make bold proposals when his brother is PM,” she tweeted.

Apart from that Jo Johnson’s paper got a pretty good press and a mostly positive reaction on social media. 

Now comes the hard part: selling the proposals to his brother, the Prime Minister, who may have at least 101 other priorities to tackle as well as getting to know a new baby!

  • Also seeFirst UK ‘international education champion’ appointed 


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