Cabinet minister says she has 'no sympathy' for struggling universities

A cabinet minister has been accused of making “dangerous” and “baffling” comments by leading higher education figures after claiming that universities have been selling “immigration rather than education”.

Esther McVey, who was appointed as “minister for common sense” by Rishi Sunak, said that she has “no sympathy” for universities who are facing a crisis of funding amid government changes to the visa route for international students.

In a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies think tank yesterday, Ms McVey said: “Universities are now complaining that their finances are being stretched due to the severity of the reductions in international students they are seeing.

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“I have no sympathy. For too long, these universities have been selling immigration to international students rather than education and the PM has been right to put a stop to that.”

Britain's Minister without Portfolio Esther McVey arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2024. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)Britain's Minister without Portfolio Esther McVey arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2024. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Britain's Minister without Portfolio Esther McVey arrives to attend a weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2024. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night higher education figures and groups representing Yorkshire’s 12 universities condemned Ms McVey’s comments, and said that international students allow the region’s top universities to contribute more than £13 billion a year to the economy, with the high number of top universities in the North allowing the area to compete globally.

Lord David Blunkett, the former education secretary under Tony Blair and Professor of Politics in Practice at the University of Sheffield, told The Yorkshire Post that Ms McVey’s comments were “ignorant, ill-informed and dangerous remarks by someone who is so clearly ill-educated as not to understand the damage being done to our economy, our education institutions and our standing in the world”.

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director of Yorkshire Universities, said: “In 2021/22, just under 50,000 international students enrolled at higher education providers in Yorkshire. Statistics show that this resulted in a net economic benefit to the region of approximately £3 billion.

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“International student fees help to cross-fund teaching and research that benefits all students, and which sparks innovation, increases trade and investment, and creates new jobs for Yorkshire.

“We would encourage policymakers to remove the barriers that make it more difficult for our members to recruit students, and to develop skills and talent for the region.”

Dr Annette Bramley, director of the N8 Research Partnership, which represents the eight most research-intensive universities in the North, including Leeds, York and Sheffield, said that international students have helped grow the UK’s status as a global research leader with a higher education sector that is the “envy of the world”.

“The comments today from Esther McVey are therefore hugely disappointing and perhaps reflect a misunderstanding of how universities contribute to local and national economies,” she said.

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Dr Bramley said that Ms McVey’s comments were “at odds with the government’s own policy and its ambitions for the UK to be a global science superpower”.

“I would therefore encourage Ms McVey to reconsider the rhetoric she uses when discussing a sector that should be celebrated, not castigated,” she added.

Some 88 per cent of universities surveyed this month reported a decrease in postgraduate applications from international students following the introduction of restrictions on students bringing family over to the UK, as well as raised salary thresholds for work visas.

The result of the Government’s rapid review of the graduate visa route, which enables international students to work in the UK for two or three years after completing their course, is expected as soon as today.

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The Home Secretary, James Cleverly, ordered the review in March to assess whether the route was “undermining the integrity and quality” of the higher education system.

Dame Professor Sally Mapstone, President of Universities UK, said: “It has been government policy and strategy since 2019 to grow international student numbers and with them our higher education export market, which in 2021 contributed more to the UK economy than crude oil.

“Growth in numbers has been entirely in line with the objectives of this government, and it is baffling to hear a government minister apparently intent on dismantling their own successful export policy.

“When looking at what is “really required in this country”, we would urge the minister to note her own government’s figures, which show skills and labour – driven by an increasing share of graduates in the market – have been the only factor making a consistent contribution to productivity growth in the UK in recent years.”

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Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group said: “Our universities have been able to expand places for UK students, who fill three out of four undergraduate places at Russell Group universities, because of the income received from international tuition fees.

“The fact that so many international students continue to want to study at our universities is a marker of success for UK higher education and should be celebrated. Further restrictions on international students will not only destabilise the sector significantly, but will undermine our competitiveness in the global education market.”

The Department for Education was approached for comment by The Yorkshire Post to ask if the Education Secretary shared her cabinet colleague’s views.

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