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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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.