How do you export universities? By bringing students here

Cameron isn't just throttling our "cultural" exports — he is throttling our <em>actual</em> exports.

Polly Toynbee has a piece in today's Guardian headlined "With this student visa policy, Cameron is throttling our cultural exports". She writes:

Remember when trade was to be our great escape? Government forecasts said net trade (exports minus imports) would rise by 2.4%, as we stole a march on our neighbours. Since then sterling has dropped by a quarter, its biggest fall since 1945. But devaluation has brought no export bonanza, with net trade falling. Yet 70% of government cuts are still to come and David Cameron promises "further and faster" deficit cutting…

So what else can we sell? Two exports rich and ripe for growth are our universities and arts, as valuable to life here as for the wealth they earn abroad. Yet the government actively stymies both, obstructing those two sectors where Britain has – but may easily lose – an international competitive trading edge.

Attracting foreign students to prestigious universities should be a booming export trade. Five chairs of parliamentary committees joined in an unprecedented joint call for visas for non-EU students to be excluded from the Home Office's cap on net immigration figures, a cap blocking an £8bn industry. Genuine university students should count as temporary visitors, valuable in cash and culture for our trading future. But this week the abrupt government answer was no. Immigration policy trumps all else.

It's a good piece, but her headline writers do her a disservice. Cameron isn't just throttling our "cultural" exports — he is throttling our actual exports.

The services sector is easily the most important in the national economy. The ONS gives it a weight of 770 out of 1000 when calculating GDP, implying that the sector contains roughly 77 per cent of the entire economy.

But the thing about services is that they can't really be exported the same way traditional goods are. Sometimes, that makes life easier; for instance, I'm in the service sector, and "exporting" the fruits of my labour is as simple as someone in another country opening up

But frequently, exporting services requires people to move. And that's the case for our university sector. We can export that expertise in the style of the University of Nottingham, and open up hugely expensive campuses overseas. Or we can just let people come to Britain. They pays their money, they gets their education.

It's not a small market, either. A BIS paper highlighted by Jonathan Portes estimates that, in 2008/9, the value of the sector was almost £8bn. As Portes writes:

That’s not just tuition fees, nor does it just benefit the education sector. If an Indian student buys a Marks and Spencer’s ready meal in Sheffield, that’s a UK export to India: real money, generating jobs and growth, and improving the trade balance.

Toynbee's right that Cameron is attacking our culture capital, and that that will have pernicious effects in the future. But he's also attacking our actual capital. And that's having pernicious effects now.

Students at London Metropolitan University protest the Government's decision to remove its right to grant visas. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.