The home secretary, Amber Rudd, has outlined plans for a new student immigration system that would make it harder for graduating students to work in the UK. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference Rudd revealed government plans to create “two-tier visa rules” which would affect poorer quality universities and courses. This would essentially mean that “lesser” UK universities will be discouraged from recruiting international students.
This is not only yet another misguided and myopic attack on overseas students, it is also an insult to the rich diversity of universities on display within UK higher education. Because the fact is, universities excel in different academic areas. Yes, a few are outstanding across the board, but many post-1992 institutions which converted from polytechnics provide exceptional teaching in particular subject areas – and excellent international students are attracted to those programmes.
Then there is also the small issue of finances. A recent briefing from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory revealed that in 2014-2015, tuition fee income from non-EU students made up almost 13% of UK universities’ total income.
There is no limit on how much universities can charge non-EU students for their courses – but it has been estimated that the average fee for a classroom-based undergraduate degree in the 2014-15 academic year was £12,100 for a non-EU student. And many post-1992 universities are reliant on income from international students as a significant source of revenue. Just how the government propose universities replace the income generated by international student tuition fees, is as yet unclear.
What is clear, is that the government has failed fundamentally to understand the value of international students to British society. Non-EU students in the UK are thought to generate around £11 billion annually in export revenues alone. This includes tuition fees and other personal expenditure – international students often spend a lot on food and goods while residing in the UK.
The government’s proposal also fails to recognise the longer-term link between international student mobility and a successful domestic “knowledge economy” – because international students are tomorrow’s knowledge workers.
It is also a fact that creativity in industry relies fundamentally on international mobility. Just look at the success of Silicon Valley’s multi-billion dollar technology industry, which is dependent upon immigration. And many of its workers had immigrated as international students, before being headhunted to work in a particular firm.
The success of British industry is no different – it relies on creativity and knowledge transfer and exchange. And it is very shortsighted to think British schools and pupils will produce all the knowledge, creativity and insight that we will ever need.
International students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences also enrich the entire student body, not to mention society more broadly. They engage in a two-way cultural exchange that is of mutual benefit to both international students and domestic students – and to wider communities.
Although not a primary task of British universities, we are nevertheless trying to create citizens that are cosmopolitan and open-minded in outlook. And there are immeasurable benefits to be had from interacting with students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. If British universities are to be “world class”, then they have also to be “in the world”, in the fullest possible way. And they need international students to fulfil their potential in both a practical and philosophical sense.
Of course, it is not the case that international students are an unquestionable “good”. If we take a global perspective, there are some compelling social reasons for at least reflecting on what happens to international students when they return home. International students are nearly always the most privileged members of their home societies – and being educated in the UK only enhances and reinforces that privilege.
Consequently, British universities are rarely a force for “social mobility” in students’ home countries, and from a “development” perspective, we should be aware of the undermining and devaluing impact that UK qualifications might have on local education systems overseas. There are also neo-colonial implications of educating the next generation of leaders in other parts of the world. However, from a purely UK standpoint, we must continue to encourage and support applications from overseas applicants to our universities.
Fixing the figures
When it comes to immigration figures, the University and College Union and Universities UK have called for the government to no longer count international students within its statistics. The Australian government, for example, makes this separation, and classifies international students as “temporary migrants”, which, unlike “permanent” migrants, are not subject to caps or quotas but are “demand driven”.
In a recent survey, 59% of people agreed that the government should not reduce international student numbers – even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall – only 22% took the opposing view. The study also found that the majority of people did not understand why international students would even be included in total immigration figures.
So given that there is no public desire to reduce the number of international students in the UK, it would instead seem they have become a target – because the government has no better ideas for reducing immigration. It feels like a “quick fix” and is not, I would suggest, the way to go.