Thursday, 28 February 2013

The BIS Select Committee, Chaney and Culture at Work

Inevitably there has been much published and tweeted on the latest Home Office figures published today, showing a fall in the net migration figures, driven largely by a fall in the number of students. The pattern is very similar to the previous quarter's figures so I won't rehash the arguments. (Though, slipping through almost unnoticed is the latest version of the Migrant Journey Third Report, with updated figures for student stay rates - showing students with valid Leave to Remain in 2011, five years after entering, had reduced to 11% (compared to 17% in 2008), and those with settled status had reduced from 3% to 1%.  In the absence of any good evidence of illegal staying on, it looks as though numbers returning home are increasing steadily.)

However, it's notable that these came out on the same day that the BIS Select Committee called the government's response to its report calling for international students' exclusion from the target to reduce net migration, Too Little Too Late.  Commentators such as Jonathan Portes and Sarah Mulley have been busy reminding those who haven't yet "got it" that it's simply not compatible to include international students in a target to shrink numbers (for net migration), while simultaneously aiming to increase numbers (as an education export strategy).  The government says it doesn't want to be accused of fiddling the figures - but as colleagues in the FE and ELT sectors tell us that they are increasingly having to shift students from Tier 4 into the student visitor route (which falls outside net migration calculations), there's arguably some sleight of hand going on as part of the damage limitation, even if only at the margins.

If we were currently in a stable state, as the Home Office have promised, we might grin and bear it.  However, the Home Secretary's decision to radically increase the number of students subject to "credibility interviews" raises questions as to whether we can expect higher numbers of refusals in future - with 65,000 still to be shaved off the net migration figure, that is presumably government's hope.  UKCISA is currently surveying institutions to ascertain experience to date, but discussions at our recent FE International Network meeting highlighted real concerns about the quality and subjectivity of decision making, especially in relation to English language competence and knowledge about the course of study.

The government, of course, might argue that we're not alone in interviewing student visa applicants.  Take the Australians, with their recently introduced "Genuine Temporary Entrant" (GTE) criterion.  But guess what, the Australians, concerned that their international education industry is still not returning to its full potential, have just released another review:  Australia - Educating Globally (aka the Chaney review) recommends a review of the GTE requirement.  Perhaps this just highlights the difficulty of balancing integrity and welcome in an immigration system, but it doesn't seem that either the UK or Australia has got that balance right yet.

The Chaney report, though, is interesting because it's not just a whinge about immigration processes - it's a comprehensive overview of all the issues involved in an international education strategy, from students' daily life (healthcare, accommodation, transport costs) to quality of education, to co-ordination of strategy at national level and informing it with adequate data.  If the UK could similarly join up the pieces, we would be in a much stronger position to move forward.

On a more positive note, all this flurry of immigration-related commentary may have meant many people have missed the publication of a new British Council report on how employers in a selection of countries value intercultural skills.  I commend Culture at Work as a more inspiring read than immigration statistics, which should encourage us to think about how well we deliver intercultural skills to both UK and international students at our institutions.  That is, after all, a fundamental part of what it's all about.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Reflection in action: thoughts from the PGCert ISAS

One of the highlights of my nearly 15 years at UKCISA was right at the start, teaching the final cohort of the UKCISA/University of Nottingham MA for International Education Professionals, so I have been really looking forward to this weekend when we finally launched 'grandchild of MA IEP' aka the Postgraduate Certificate International Student Advice and Support (PG Cert ISAS).

It has been an intense and exhausting weekend but incredibly rewarding. We have a fantastically committed and engaged cohort of 17 students from across the UK, working in a range of roles and institution-types. Although the commonest shared emotion at the start seemed to have been fear - it's never easy to go back to HE after a long gap or to dive into postgraduate study without a first degree - everyone settled in quickly and contributed an excellent range of experiences and insights, thanks in large part to course leader, Belinda Harris's welcoming and inclusive style (the cup cakes seemed to help too).

The theme of this first module has been cross-cultural theory and its application to the adviser's role. As you might expect this led to reflections on all aspects of support for international students and how this is affected by the wider context - and Tier 4 in particular. Discussions really showed the benefit of having space for critical and reflective thought, on everything from how individual communication styles impact on professional approaches, to the impact on students, advisers and institutions of the creeping compliance culture in institutions. 

While this module has focused on the influence of culture, its introduction of the idea of the 'reflective practitioner' has meant that themes are already beginning to appear that link us forward to the subsequent modules on advice skills, legal frameworks and managing complexity. 

Thanks to all the students, and my fellow tutors Belinda, Qing, Zhen and Joanna for a thought-provoking weekend.  I shall look forward to many more.

The next cohort of the PG Cert ISAS will begin in February 2014.  More details on the University of Nottingham's website.