Limiting foreign students in the UK is a bad idea

The economy benefits from the fees they pay, which are much higher than those paid by Britons, but that's not the whole point

A pupil from France on a secondary school exchange in Edinburgh in May. AFP
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The whole point of the Brexit referendum in 2016 was to put an end to a long-running debate in the UK within the Conservative party. More than six years on, the aftermath has led to scores of new debates, often on issues that seem rather bizarre. The latest being a suggestion that to curb immigration, a new limit on international students coming to study in the UK ought to be put into effect. It probably is not the proposal most likely to baffle observers, but it is one of the most self-defeating.

One could engage incessantly on the issue of migration and its societal impacts with data and evidence, but it is a purely ideological "culture war" that decides the outcome. Even Britain’s recent former prime minister, Liz Truss, who became an ardent Brexiteer over the course of time, was planning to increase immigration – as recently as a few weeks ago – in order to fill job vacancies and boost economic growth. But as long as British politicians continue to treat immigration like political football, the public will have to deal with the consequences.

But on the matter of international students, the bizarreness manifestly increases. International students bring a variety of benefits to the UK, which is why UK universities are so keen to invite them. Several, if not all universities in the country, have full-time staff working to attract international students, with many of them often sending personnel to different countries to encourage those students to apply to their campuses. Indeed, the UK government itself agreed – in the International Growth Strategy from just three years ago – that the plan was to increase the number of foreign students studying in the country each year.

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Why should we sacrifice economic well-being even further on the altar of pointless ideological culture wars

When the proposal first appeared in the press last week, universities warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that such a move would be “an act of economic self-harm”. That is the primary argument being used at present by universities, it seems.

The UK’s Russell Group, which is formed of 24 top research-oriented universities in the country similar to the US's "Ivy League", has raised an alarm with regard to the damage to the national economy.

International students pay much more than British students for access to higher education in the UK, and are thus incredibly valuable in financial terms to British universities. Indeed, for some universities, the absence of international students could mean the end of their existence; such is the dependence on those funds, according to the chair of the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee.

Universities UK, a collective that represents 140 universities, argued that limiting international students would specifically damage the local economies of many areas of the country, where international students currently make a significant difference. The scale should not be underestimated. The Higher Education Statistics Authority reported that on average, international students paid more than 40 per cent of all university fees every year from 2016 onwards.

Britain's King Charles joins a discussion with students at University College, Oxford. AP

I spent eight years in British higher education as a student, up to doctoral level, and much of the past 15 years as faculty. It was in university that I first engaged with a plethora of cultures, with students from around the world. That is valuable in and of itself, in a way that cannot be sufficiently quantified.

I personally had a fairly cosmopolitan upbringing, and the experience was still astounding to me. But many of my compatriots had never left their small towns in the UK, and had far less exposure to the outside world than I had. Coming into contact with the "global village" on our university campus widened our horizons in ways that we benefitted from, permanently.

As the vice chancellor of Liverpool University pointed out last week, every single parliamentary constituency in the UK benefits from the financial investment made by international students, and the country in general gets a net contribution of at least £25.9 billion ($31 billion) a year as a result.

There are other arguments to be made. The Russell Group insisted that such a move sends a "wrong signal about the UK on the global stage" – at a time when the government is claiming that the "Global Britain" brand is paramount.

As the effects of Brexit continue to be felt across the country, Britons need more, not less, engagement internationally. A restrictive policy around international students furthers the perception that the UK is not a welcoming place for foreigners; indeed, it already risks that. The UK Border Police in a well-documented case held an international student from Nepal under dubious pretexts for almost two weeks, because their officers could not believe that he was actually a student, despite his having all the requisite paperwork. There was little to suggest that the student was a suspected security risk.

The UK is going to be facing more and more challenges in the coming period. Some of them will be entirely unavoidable, and we must live with that. But why should we voluntarily shoot ourselves in the foot, sacrificing economic well-being even further on the altar of pointless ideological culture wars? There is really no need at all.

Published: November 30, 2022, 8:30 AM
Updated: December 06, 2022, 7:00 AM