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 newstatesman.com.

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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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