We can't afford to leave foreign students out in the cold

Especially all night, in queues.

In a Sun article a few weeks ago, Theresa May boasted: “We saw a record 62 per cent drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012.” Year on year, they fell by a third to 213,836. I suppose some congratulations are due to the Tory Home Secretary and her party – they are successfully destroying Britain’s reputation as a leading destination for higher education. Foreign students bring in an estimated £12.5bn a year, but it’s not as if the country needs to exploit its competitive sectors during the deepest recession in a century, is it? 

May went on in the same piece to blame immigration for increased “pressure on our health, education, transport and welfare services” – all areas that the Conservative Party has industriously been assaulting with its poorly thought-out and expensive policies, which have seen the national deficit climb 22 per cent so far this year.

Despite May’s triumphant tone in reporting the drop in student visas, the universities minister David “Opportunities For Women Ended Up Magnifying Social Divides” Willetts (of all people) recently suggested a sensible movement towards decoupling foreign student figures from those measuring net migration. "I want to make clear the attitude of the government," he said. "There is no limit on the number of legitimate students from overseas studying at British universities." Net migration will still include foreign students but the publication of disaggregated figures within migration statistics will hopefully help reorientate the debate in a healthier direction – ie, away from May's hot air.

International students are not, on the whole, permanent migrants. That’s why other major English-language education exporters such as Australia and the US don’t even include them in immigration caps. However, because as many as two in every five arrivals to the UK are here to study, the temptation to down-engineer their figures is irresistible to a government that has pledged to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands".

Phantom menace

Meanwhile, UK institutions are slipping down international league tables as a result of what the Times Higher Education World University Rankings editor Phil Baty has called a “perfect storm” of “falling public investment in teaching and research; hostile visa conditions discouraging the world’s top academics and students from coming here; and serious uncertainty about where our next generation of scholars will come from, with a policy vacuum surrounding postgraduate study”. Is this a deliberate Tory strategy? Maybe if they make British higher education really rubbish, those menacing foreigners will just go away?

Or how about making them stand around in queues through the night to register their stay in this country? This week, footage by Daniel Stevens of the National Union of Students emerged showing students from 42 countries lining the streets in their hundreds in the early hours of the morning, hoping to make their seven-day deadline to check in with the Overseas Visitors Records Office. "It is absolutely unacceptable that students be asked to be queue for hours, often in terrible weather, and be expected to arrive before 6.30am to have any chance of being seen," said Stevens to the BBC. Queuing has long been considered "a sacred part of British culture" but . . . seriously.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Hospitality fail: a protester in London in August. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.