The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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.

Foreign students are classed as immigrants, a group which the government treats with contempt. Photo: Getty

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