Negative attitude towards foreign students harmful to UK

James Pitman, managing director, higher education UK and Europe at Study Group, discusses how recent negative sentiment towards foreign students could have a damaging effect on the future of the UK’s higher education sector and the economy.

The UK's higher education sector is facing an identity crisis that threatens its centuries old reputation as an academic world leader and risks billions of pounds in potential revenue from education tourists.

The root cause is the government’s target to reduce net-migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. Since it cannot stop citizens of EU member states coming and going, the only way to achieve this is to crackdown on the non-EU demographic – this includes international students. It has done this by raising the bar for visa applications to prohibitive heights, removing post-study rights to work, and ordering the UKBA to impose stringent requirements on visa-sponsoring education institutions here in the UK.

This spectacular act of cutting off your nose to spite your face means the ‘brightest and best’ from across the globe are now considering alternative education destinations such as Australia and the United States and Britain’s opportunity to establish long standing, international economic connections, is being surrendered to competitor nations.

The turning negative tide has not gone unnoticed by foreign students who are already studying in the UK. An art project based on a survey of international students by South Korean student Min Jae Huh revealed that her peers felt the UK viewed them variously as criminals, disposable goods and, overwhelmingly, ‘cash cows’.

A feeling compounded by Migration Watch’s public claims that foreign students are being used to “prop up” the UK’s less-well known universities. (A statement that wilfully overlooks the fact that many students seek out specialised and focussed courses, such as business or media studies, that aren’t offered by our ‘gold standard’ institutions – business and management courses are the most popular – and blithely undervalues our less famous universities and the cultural and academic contribution of foreign students to the UK.)

The effect of allowing the UK to be seen as unwelcoming, ungrateful or closed for business to international students is not to be underestimated. As Britain’s biggest ‘hidden’ export, education and training is estimated to be worth £40bn annually, sustaining jobs both in academia and in the local economies around universities across the regions.

Often, studying in the UK is the start of a highly beneficial economic cycle, with stellar graduates either staying on in the UK to contribute through the job market or academia, or returning home and establishing trade, cultural or diplomatic links with Britain.

Yet migration figures released by the ONS on 29th November, indicating a fall of 26 per cent, in the number of student visas issued in the year to September 2012 suggest students are already being driven to institutions abroad.

While our government was setting an example by pulling the rug out from under hundreds of genuine students at London Metropolitan University, our education competitors, the USA, Canada and Australia, are boosted by their governments’ decisions to remove foreign students from net migration figures, treating them as valuable ‘education tourists’ instead.

Universities minister, David Willetts, and deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, have both come out in favour of separating foreign students from net migration figures in the UK. Not only would such a move assist the government in achieving its migration targets without ‘fiddling the figures’ but it would be the first step in creating an effective system of recording and tracking, that is tailored specifically to this demographic.

Net migration is currently measured through the International Passenger Survey, which, as it only measures 0.2% of travellers, is clearly not fit for purpose, and we have no system at all for tracking who has left the UK. Basing a migration policy on guesswork is damaging the UK’s academic image abroad.

The government remains shy of being seen to make another u-turn, especially on an issue as high profile as immigration, but in the face of such compelling arguments it is surely unavoidable. Indeed, there are already signs of wavering. Additional ‘disaggregated’ immigration figures are to be collected that exclude overseas students and officials have acted swiftly to relax the rules after damaging images surfaced of international students queuing throughout the night to register with police in London. More recently, London Mayor, Boris Johnson, during his trip to India, called for relaxation of visa rules which he believes are sending the “wrong signal” and has seen the UK to lose business to Australia, America and Canada.   

Universities such as the London School of Economics pride themselves on their cultural diversity and international students make up 42 per cent of the student population. They seek out the ‘brightest and best’ from overseas not, as recent reports would suggest, to “fill in the holes of the higher education budget”, but to create a multi-cultural learning environment for the academic enrichment of all. Such environments establish networking connections that pave the way for future business on a global scale.

Perhaps more importantly, they help solidify the reputation of the British higher education system in the eyes of the world. Six of the world’s top 40 universities are in Britain – international students have a lot of choice in a globalised world; reputation is important.

The damage already done could take decades to repair. It is essential we follow the example of David Willetts, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson and leading education associations like Universities UK and fight to promote the credibility of international students, in order to protect our HE sector and our position in an increasingly competitive global education market.

James Pitman is managing director, higher education UK and Europe, of Study Group, a specialist provider of educational programmes and placements for international students. Find them on Twitter @Study_Group

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