Foreign students are classed as immigrants, a group which the government treats with contempt. Photo: Getty
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The government must stop treating international students with hostility

This year, the number of foreign students undertaking higher education in Britain fell for the first time since 1983. The government must stop treating them with contempt.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi. Each one of them has shaped the world in which we live and, as it happens, every one of them was educated here in Britain.

Along with the United States, the UK’s universities are the finest on the planet. The ability that this gives us to attract the world’s talent to these shores represents not only an enormous economic opportunity but also a crucial component of our nation’s cultural strength. It is something I have been proud to observe in recent months as the newly appointed chancellor of the University of Birmingham. 

I came to the UK from my birthplace of India because of the outstanding quality of its higher education institutions, but it was Britain's internationalism – its unique role as a point of congregation for ideas and creativity from around the globe – that allowed me to start Cobra Beer here.

And yet despite the mutually beneficial historic relationship between the UK and international students, this government continues to badge them as immigrants, a group it treats with a contempt bordering on outright hostility. 

That's despite new research from Universities UK, which found that only 22 per cent of the British public considers overseas students to be immigrants. Political leaders from the Deputy Prime Minister to Lord Heseltine have added their voices to the call for international students to be removed from the immigration figures. And yet the Home Office still refuses to take action, despite the evident failure of its crude policies towards controlling net migration, shown recently to have risen by 68,000 in the last year.

Net migration may be rising but one vital statistic is going the other way, with potentially severe consequences. This year the number of foreign students undertaking higher education here in Britain fell by 1 per cent – the first time a decline has been recorded since 1983. With government-sponsored poster campaigns barking “go home or face arrest” and the disastrous, failed proposal for “high risk” visa applicants from nations like Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan to pay a £3,000 "security bond" deposit upon entering the UK, it’s little wonder that the world’s brightest and best are starting to look elsewhere.

Indeed, an NUS poll carried out earlier this year recorded that 51 per cent of international students found the British government “unwelcoming”. That damage is being done to Britain's reputation on the world stage as a home for the future talent on which our economy increasingly depends couldn't be more clear. 

And while the government is helping promote a climate of hostility against overseas students, the Universities UK research clearly demonstrates that this does not reflect the public mood. 59 per cent of respondents to the survey said that the government should not reduce numbers of international students, even if such action made reducing overall immigration numbers harder. 

Our universities are competing in a zero-sum game of global proportions and every engineer, programmer and aspiring entrepreneur that we turn away will be welcomed with open arms by the likes of Canada, Germany and Australia. Given that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates overseas students contribute more than £13 billion to the UK economy, that is a prospect we should all be extremely worried about.

For years the government has been ignoring the well-founded requests of colleagues within the House of Lords and many more besides, to remove international students from the immigration statistics. Now the public has spoken too; and it is time the government started listening.

Lord Bilimoria CBE is founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, a crossbench peer and chancellor of the University of Birmingham

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.