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Sunak’s plans

December 03, 2022

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced his controversial plan to reduce international student intake in universities across the country. His government sees this plan as a step towards controlling the rising migration in the UK.

According to a recent report by the ‘BBC’, Sunak is exploring administrative and legal ways to put restrictions on international students pursuing ‘low-quality’ degrees and bringing dependents. Ever since he assumed charge, Sunak has been trying to project himself as a hard-nosed statesperson. Migration is one issue on which he has taken a fairly hawkish stance.

The key reason behind this thinking can be traced to the latest data by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which shows a big jump in the number of migrants - from 173,000 in 2021 to 504,000 this year (2022). International students, especially Indian students who recently surpassed Chinese nationals for the first time to make up the largest group to receive student visas, are top contributors to this surge. Almost 277,000 or 39 per cent of the total long-term immigrants are people who arrive on student visas. Another key contributing factor is several visa schemes for Ukrainians and Hong Kong citizens, which have lured thousands of immigrants to move to the UK. The Sunak government intends to reduce net migration to below 100,000.

There are two reasons for this sudden decision to clamp down on the migration process. One, Sunak needs some cosmetic measures to defuse the growing public resentment over the cost-of-living crisis, which previously ended Liz Truss’ tenure within 45 days. And two, being an anti-China hawk, he is trying different tactics to tackle the growing Chinese influence on British society and the economy. There is every reason to believe that Chinese students, who are the largest group of foreign students enrolled in British universities and other education institutions, are the main target of Sunak’s campaign against foreign students.

In a series of tweets posted on July 25, as a part of highly vitriolic campaign against Beijing, Sunak appeared quite hostile when he declared that around 30 UK-based Confucius Institutes, most of which are run by the Chinese government, would be shut down under his government’s China policies. The second part of his six-part tweet says: “almost all UK government spending on Mandarin language teaching at school is channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, thereby promoting Chinese soft power.” He is quite worried about the growing Chinese influence in the UK and wants to restrict the arrival of Chinese students in the country.

Although some of his critics have raised questions over his commitment towards the anti-China drive and compare it with other hawkish Conservative leaders, Sunak has so far proven to be a more ardent China hawk than any of his predecessors in recent history.

Despite this discreet China factor, Sunak’s anti-migration move is likely to face tough resistance from universities and the industrial sector for financial reasons. Many British sectors, including manufacturing, care and hospitality, are facing recruitment-related challenges. And skilled foreign immigrants are helping British industries to offset the impact of the growing inflation as they accept job offers at relatively low wages as compared to the locals. Any reduction in the migration rate will have a negative impact on the flow of low-cost skilled workers to industries and may pose a survival challenge for many companies already dealing with the financial crunch.

There will be a severe reaction from British universities which are inordinately dependent on the tuition fee paid by foreign students. Some universities are likely to face bankruptcy if the Sunak government decides to go ahead with its decision. It will certainly push several universities over the edge. Such varsities charge high fees from international students to offset their expenses. A massive increase in British students’ fees is the only option to make up for the loss suffered by a reduction in revenue.

For quite some time, the successive British governments have deliberately slashed higher education funds, indirectly encouraging universities to exploit foreign students through astronomical fees and a violent visa regime. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, more than 600,000 international students are currently enrolled in UK universities and contribute GBP9.95 billion to these universities’ revenue. It is a huge sum and will simply push universities towards insolvency if Sunak’s anti-migration drive gets successful.

Sunak has genuine reasons to initiate the campaign against the migration wave, but his focus on discouraging international students opting for ‘low-quality’ degrees has changed the whole context of this problem. He has not defined what he meant by ‘low-quality degrees’, but his intentions are clear that he wants to stop the inflow of international students – mostly Chinese nationals – through administrative tools.

Top-tier education institutions like Oxford University, Cambridge University and the London School of Economics (LSE) are certainly not included in this category, but his arguments will affect a large number of British education institutions. Several international students and the management of different universities have started registering their concerns, and this may force Sunak to reconsider his plan. Through his bias towards international students, Sunak has established his credentials as a fierce anti-China hawk.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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