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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.