International students are a vital part of a thriving economy

Just like John Cleese’s character, Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there are some people who may pose the question, what have international students ever done for us? And should we actually care about whether we encourage more international students to study in the UK? Well yes we should, because they are a vital part of our higher education landscape and our economy. For a start they expose our own students to different cultures and practices, something which international companies value more and more. Secondly, living and working alongside international students improves our students’ awareness of how competitive the international graduate market really has become.

The global student market has exploded, and because English is still the language of business and science, young people from across the world want to learn in the UK. According to the British Council, over the next 10 years global tertiary education will grow from 178 million to 199 million, with much of that coming from developing countries. As a result of this explosion, international students make a significant financial contribution to UK higher education. The Government’s own figures estimate that in 2011/12 around £10 billion was spent by international students in tuition fees and expenditure in the wider economy.

But currently there is deep inconsistency in government policy between international students and immigration policy. While the Prime Minister states that there is “no cap on the number of genuine students coming from across the world to study in this country” colleagues in the Home Office have designed the Immigration Bill to “reduce the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK”. The latter primarily intended to discourage unskilled workers, ‘benefit tourists’ and those seen as a drain on the system. But international students will also get caught in the crossfire as it risks turning landlords into de facto immigration officials. The message that the Home Office is sending deliberately or otherwise to prospective overseas students is that they are not welcome in the UK.

Those that do come are only allowed in for a short period of time. As the entrepreneur James Dyson recently said “We take their money and give them our knowledge. But then we kick them out, dispatching newly trained engineers to foreign shores. Our experts are training the competition. These are the world’s most promising engineers. We ought to be encouraging them to stay, not waving them goodbye”. International students are the collateral damage in the Government’s policy to reduce net immigration. And the consequences are being felt even before the Immigration Bill comes into effect. The latest figures show the drop in international student enrolment in 2012-13 is the first in 29 years.

Furthermore, the decline in the number of international students has unintended consequences for home-grown students. In many instances it is only international students’ tuition fees that make some courses financially viable, particularly in high-cost science and engineering subjects. Without the income they bring either tuition fees for home-grown students will have to rise to compensate for the loss or they will have to close. Such short-term decisions can have long-term negative impacts. And given the recent concerns about whether the new tuition fee system will cost more to the taxpayer than the previous one, it would be a curious move to turn away such vast sums.

The sector can be a major contributor to the UK’s global influence, what is known as ‘soft power’. International students that do return home can end up being the UK’s greatest ambassadors. Many will retain personal and professional links with the UK, and many will also go on to hold influential positions in their own country. The most rudimentary internet search will find that a considerable number of international figures have spent some time at a UK university. Agnès Poirier, a writer and commentator on politics and French-British relations is right to say that British universities “are centres for shaping the thoughts of the future elite in the world”.

The Government repeatedly states its desire to win the global race, to create a more educated workforce, and to make the UK the best place in the world to do business. The global race is going to be won by countries that invest in intellectual capital, innovation and ideas, from wherever they come. The race will not be won by those who close their borders to global talent. International students are a vital part of that race.