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Did Theresa May duck the issue of tougher tests for foreign students?

“I don’t care what the university lobbyists say,” said Theresa May at this week’s Conservative party conference. And on the face of it, she doesn’t, preferring instead to see universities as part of Britain’s “immigration problem”.

However, she might be more rattled by how the media, business groups and some of her colleagues reacted to her speech on immigration. The Telegraph described it as “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible”. The Spectator accused May of “pandering to the basest elements of the Tory party” and offering a “stale and noxious concoction of tawdry nativism”.

The question for the higher education sector is: did May’s speech live up to media speculation that she would make it even tougher for international students to find places at British universities?

The speech followed a “revelation” in the Times that David Cameron hadabandoned support (paywall) for May over her insistence that overseas students continue to be included in the government’s net migrant target and a claim in the Sunday Times that she was on a collision course (paywall) with universities over plans to slash the number of foreign students coming to Britain by at least 25,000 a year – by setting tougher English language tests.

The new language tests, the paper claimed, “are expected to be tougher than those in place in Australia and America, putting Britain’s top universities at a disadvantage”.

But May elected not to go into the detail of her plans for stricter language requirements for international students, or even visa thresholds.

In fact, her speech has been widely judged as a leadership bid. It certainly wasn’t an economic argument. Her claims about the impact of immigration on houses, jobs, wages were a clear pitch for political advantage well to the right of the other likely runners.

On the face of things then , little has changed. Proposals on language thresholds, refusal rates and students remaining in the migration figures are still on the table and, no doubt, in various Home Office drafts of an imminent immigration white paper. So we’re not there yet. But for the first time in years, there may be reason to be optimistic.

George Osborne knows he might have to upset universities by cutting some of their cash in the November spending review. But alongside Philip Hammond at the Foreign Office and more recently Sajid Javid at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, he is keen to allow them to make this up via increased international recruitment.

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He and the Treasury know what economic benefits that both migration and international students bring to the economy. Furthermore, Osborne won’t want to lose any political tussle with a leading rival for the leadership.

So where do we go from here? In the immediate future, this only leads us directly to what David Cameron is thinking. Thus far he has stood by his home secretary – immediately after the May general election, the Conservatives reiterated their target to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands. This week he claimed to agree with every word of May’s speech, including her view that ‘immigration makes it impossible to build a cohesive society.’

But Theresa May has powerful new opponents in the media, business and among her own colleagues. On this issue, it is only Cameron’s support that matters. Will he change his mind? Osborne, Hammond, Javid and Johnson want him to do so. But none are the leader yet.

As May ramps up measures against international students and anti-immigration rhetoric, it gets more difficult for the prime minister to remain neutral. It is time to make his choice.


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