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Incoming PM Theresa May sparks hope and apprehension in UK academic community

With UK Home Secretary Theresa May set to be the next UK Prime Minister on Wednesday, many are asking what her ascension means for the future of education in the country.

Observers are scouring her previous statements and record as an MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and Home Secretary for clues on how she would handle Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (or Brexit) in regard to education policy.

So far the reaction from education professionals and analysts is mixed, with some seeing a cause for hope and others reacting with dismay, mostly in relation to her uncompromising stances on immigration as Home Secretary.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was perhaps the central issue which clinched victory for Brexiteers, and many worry that a May government would usher an outflow of EU academic talent from the country.

As Anne Corbett pointed out in University World News, EU students and academics “make up around 5.5% of the student body and around 15% of academic staff.”

In regard, her record as Home Secretary may not exactly be reassuring. While overseeing the Home Office, she has been notably hawkish on immigration, insisting that foreign students be included in the government’s net migration reduction target, and lashing out against “university lobbyists” in regard to overseas students who overstay their visas.

“[T]he fact is too many [foreign students] are not returning home as soon as their visas run out,” she told the Conservative Party conference, reported Times Higher Education.

“I don’t care what the university lobbyists say. The rules must be enforced. Students, yes; overstayers, no.”

Nick Hillman, former special adviser to Universities, and Science Minister Lord Willetts, told Times Higher Education, “Occasionally when we used to have our battles with the Home Office, saying ‘please be more liberal on international students’; they would say, ‘well, we could envisage a world where the rules were a bit more liberal for a small number of institutions that we trust.'”

“It was never quite clear if having more liberal rules for some institutions would have meant even tougher rules for the rest.”

Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, wrote in Times Higher Education that, “Although [May] campaigned for Remain, since the EU referendum she has ruled out a quick deal on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. By doing so, she has perpetuated uncertainty for the large numbers of staff in UK universities who are EU citizens and no doubt contributed to an environment in which UK universities will find it harder than before to attract researchers and students from around the EU.”

However, Mian described her as more competent and cautious than the other Tory candidates, and predicted a “high level of [policy] continuity” between her government and Cameron’s.

Aside from Brexit, there is also the question regarding university tuition fees – an incredibly volatile issue in the UK and one that has previously sparked protests. May voted against raising the tuition fee cap while she was a member of the opposition, but voted for it when in government.

Ultimately, May’s approach to education, like the terms of Brexit, remain shrouded in uncertainty. But many may take heart in her long service in government, extrapolating it to predict competence and no drastic surprises.

Image via AP Images.

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