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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.