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Expert View

Foreign students: an exercise in self harm

by David Hannay | 30.04.2017

On the last sitting day of this foreshortened 2015/17 parliament – 27 April – the government torpedoed a provision in the Higher Education and Research Bill which would have put an end to the practice of treating overseas students for public policy purposes as long term economic migrants. The amendment would have prevented the introduction of new immigration restrictions on overseas students, undergraduate and post-graduate, and on academic staff.

Just in case anyone doubted their intransigence, the government made it clear that they would rather kill off the whole bill – their own legislation promised in the 2015 Conservative manifesto – than accept these new provisions.

Does this really matter to our universities and research establishments? You bet it does. Overseas students bring in annually £25.8 billion of income and economic activity to this country, supporting jobs, roughly 206,000 of them, and the prosperity of our university towns and cities.

They represent 19% of all students, 25% of post-graduates. In many subjects they make up a much higher proportion – 55% for business studies, 45% for maths, 42% for computer science. So they are an essential underpinning to those STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects which are crucial to our future industrial strategy.  Among academic staff, 28% are from overseas, 31% of them in the STEM subjects. A good proportion of all these categories are from the EU and can come freely if they are offered a place.

Does this retention of a bizarre relic of a discredited immigration policy damage our position as the No. 2 provider of higher education services worldwide? It certainly looks like it.

Our main competitors – the United States, Australia and Canada – do not treat overseas students as economic migrants. In the most recent statistics (for 2015) the US numbers were up 10%, Canada was up 10% and Australia 9%; the UK rose by less than 1%. So we are already losing market share and hence weakening that vital soft power and influence for decades ahead that we derive from educating future leaders in business, government and research across the world. One striking example: the number of Indian students coming to the UK has fallen by 53% since 2010.

What is particularly aberrant is that most voters do not regard students as economic migrants in the first place.  Even those who want tighter immigration controls after Brexit do not consider students as being part of the problem. A recent survey conducted for Universities UK showed that 3/4 of those questioned did not take that view.

Within government many understand that we need to change, and be seen to change, our approach to overseas students. The point will surely be brought home with a vengeance when we come to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals with India, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Brazil and when we insist that our service industries be included within their scope.

If last week’s act of self-harm is an indicator of how the government elected on June 8 is going to handle post-Brexit immigration policy, then Britain is in serious trouble. Let us hope that wiser counsels will prevail, and that the objective of a “global Britain”, which Theresa May has so proudly proclaimed, is applied in a way that will benefit one of our most valuable national assets, higher education.

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Edited by Paul Taylor