Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Quickfire
25 November 2022

Banning foreign students would backfire on levelling up

Only allowing them into elite universities relegates domestic students to lower-tier universities – which end up deprived of funding.

By Jonathan Portes

This week the Prime Minister responded to a direct question about whether changes to migration policy might help to address labour shortages by talking about those arriving in small boats across the Channel. This is an attempt at misdirection. And the government’s kite-flying about a “crackdown” on foreign students appears to be another one. 

Almost certainly, both attempts are doomed. As British Future, the equality think tank, has repeatedly pointed out, most people don’t think of foreign students as “immigrants” at all. They are certainly not top of anyone’s concerns on the topic, except perhaps a xenophobic minority who object to people – even relatively well-off and well-educated ones –coming here from “poor countries” like India and Nigeria.

That restricting foreign students is self-defeating from an economic perspective is obvious. It directly contradicts one of the key parts of the UK’s post-Brexit economic strategy; as recently as May the government reaffirmed its objective to increase the number of international students here to 600,000, which would in turn help to increase education exports to £35bn. Indeed, the progress made towards this target is one of the few bright spots in the UK’s otherwise dismal trade performance. 

Moreover, the benefits of this don’t just accrue to the national economy and to the universities themselves. Elementary economics tells us that the “lump of labour” fallacy is wrong – there is not a fixed number of jobs, and immigrants don’t reduce employment prospects for natives. Similarly, so is the “lump of places” fallacy; international students expand educational opportunities for young Britons rather than reducing them. Numerous reports – including by the government’s own independent advisory committee – have concluded that, far from displacing British students, international students and the fees they pay cross-subsidise domestic students and research, and there are wider benefits resulting from a more diverse student body.

The most puzzling, and potentially damaging, suggestion is that restrictions would be implemented only for students not attending a “top university”. In other words, King’s College London, where I teach, would continue to be able to recruit from abroad as it wished; universities with lower entry requirements, often in more deprived areas, would not.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

This would mean that international students would be increasingly concentrated in elite universities. Over time, particularly if tuition fees paid by domestic students continue to erode in real terms, this might indeed have the impact of squeezing out British students, who would be relegated to universities below the top tier. Given that it is precisely those universities who would be hit by the new restrictions that are in a more difficult financial position, and therefore more reliant on income from foreign students, those institutions are likely to have to reduce either the number or quality of the courses that they offer. If, that is, they were to stay in business at all. 

Content from our partners
Are we there yet with electric cars? The EV story – with Wejo
Sherif Tawfik: The Middle East and Africa are ready to lead on the climate
How deception can become your friend

So the best UK universities would be forced to rely even more on international students, who’d come into less and less contact with their British counterparts. Meanwhile, there would be fewer and lower-quality institutions for British students, and some places – almost certainly those in more deprived areas – might lose their university entirely. It’s hard to think of a policy that would be better targeted at reducing social mobility and more damaging for “levelling up”. 

[See also: Learning for its own sake is lovely, but that’s not all university is for]

Topics in this article : , , ,