Why it's cruel to treat foreign students like a political football

The idea of a university is meant to be inclusive, generous and collaborative – everything the current diplomatic spats over its pupils are not

BOSTON, MA - JULY 13: Attorney General Maura Healey and international students rally at the State House against ICE visa rules that would potentially remove students from the country or prevent others reentry, weeks before fall semester begins, during the coronavirus pandemic on July 13, 2020 in Boston. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

When the academic new year begins in a month or so, universities will not only face the challenge of how they are going to conduct classes and tutorials while the coronavirus pandemic still rages. They will also be confronted by the very unwelcome prospect of being dragged into the arena of international politics.

I mentioned last month how China's education ministry had issued an advisory warning its young people about studying in Australian universities – purportedly over issues of racism and the inability to combat the coronavirus effectively, but generally assumed to be a rebuke for Prime Minister Scott Morrison's acquiescence in US President Donald Trump's attempts to pin all the blame for the virus on China.

Now ministers in the UK are said to be bracing themselves for a drastic reduction in the number of Chinese students at British universities, after Beijing-aligned media warned that "public and painful" retaliation was coming over the Conservative government's decision to ban Huawei from its 5G networks. Given that there are currently 120,000 Chinese students at British universities, this is no idle threat to the country's tertiary education sector.

The British flag and a smartphone with a Huawei and 5G network logo are seen on a PC motherboard in this illustration picture taken January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

In the US the number of Chinese students is even higher, at 370,000. They were alarmed when the Trump administration announced at the beginning of the month that if their colleges shifted to online-only classes when term begins, foreign students could not remain in America but would be expelled, and have to return home to take them.

The decision was later reversed, but many Chinese students already felt increasingly unwelcome in the US, partly due to Mr Trump's anti-Beijing rhetoric and partly due to his actions, such as another proposal to revoke the visas of students with direct ties to universities affiliated to the People's Liberation Army or China's intelligence agencies.

There are financial implications to this. Universities in all three countries – the US, Australia and the UK – depend on these students for income, the latter two heavily so. In 2017 Chinese constituted 11 per cent of Australia's total student population, and the University of Sydney relied on Chinese students for 20 per cent of its income. In the UK, nine universities – including Imperial College and University College, London – receive a similar or higher percentage of their tuition income from Chinese students.

This photo illustration shows a visa stamp on a foreign passport in Los Angeles on June 6, 2020. The United States said June 6 it would not allow foreign students to remain in the country if all of their classes are moved online in the fall over the coronavirus crisis. / AFP / Chris DELMAS
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While it is to be hoped that our common humanity will swiftly become obvious, so should the various ways in which we express that

But there is a wider point that is, to me, far more important. And that is the potential blow to the whole notion of students travelling internationally for under- and post-graduate education. These cohorts – from whatever country – are the ideal age and are in the optimal circumstances to immerse themselves in and learn about other cultures.

For few get to travel abroad except for short holidays as children. I was very lucky to spend significant periods of time growing up in Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea, experiences that gave me a lifelong appreciation for very different customs, religions, values and ideas of social order. But then my parents were expats; mine were encounters available to only a few.

True, some people do choose to work abroad as adults. But leaving “home” semi-permanently, which means removing oneself from family and friends, is a course of action almost alien to many, certainly in America and Europe, unless they are forced to do so by lack of opportunity in their own countries. And there is an unfortunate tendency among some expats – sad to say, Brits are often guilty of this – to stick together and not find out any more than strictly necessary about their host countries.

Students, however, are actively deciding to spend key formative years miles, and often thousands of miles, away from their own countries. They will live, eat and learn next to people who may look, sound and dress very differently from them.

--FILE--Chinese students studying abroad dressed in academic gowns pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, 11 February 2012.

In 2015, a total of 1.26 million Chinese students studied abroad, accounting for about 25 percent of all international students worldwide. According to an annual report by the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), China has become the single largest source of overseas students. The report, released on Dec. 12 and titled "Annual Report on the Development of Chinese Students Studying Abroad (2016)," was jointly published by CCG and the Social Science Academic Press (China). It is the fifth version of the research report, which was first published in 2012. According to CCG's research, China is the largest source of overseas students in English-speaking countries including the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia. It is also the top source for Asian countries including Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Statistics show that Chinese students account for more than 30 percent of total overseas students in the U.S. and Canada, and about 62 percent of international students in South Korea in 2015. The report pointed out that China has been the largest source of overseas students in the U.S. for seven consecutive years, and the number of Chinese students earning bachelor's degrees surpassed the number of those doing graduate studies for the first time last year. Meanwhile, the number of younger students studying abroad is rising every year. A study conducted by CCG and MyCOS showed a significant increase in Chinese students studying in high schools outside of China. The proportion of Chinese students going abroad for high school jumped from 17 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2015. Data released last year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicates that the number of Chinese students in middle and high schools in the U.S. has increased threefold in the last five years.No U

While it is to be hoped that our common humanity will swiftly become obvious, so should the various ways in which we express that: our manners and mores, our attitudes to older generations, to the state, to society and how we fit into it, to religion and liberty, and to the individual and the collective.

The experiences can be transformative. It may not mean that, for example, the student from Myanmar will know exactly what it is to walk in an Englishman’s shoes; but he will have a much keener idea of it – including observing that, oddly, people in England keep those shoes on in their homes. We surely need more of this, for one of the ways we will find an answer to justified critiques of globalisation is to know more about each other, not less.

Neither does it need to involve any loss of identity or roots, becoming what the UK political thinker David Goodhart calls “people from anywhere”. Those who have been educated abroad still know the “somewhere” that they are from. I have many Malaysian friends, for instance, who studied and then worked in the UK. One by one, nearly all have returned.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - July 17, 2018: Stock images of Khalifa University. Monday, July 17th, 2018 at Khalifa University, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

This should be no surprise. Across the Muslim world, an education at Al Azhar University in Cairo has been prized for centuries. Students do not emigrate permanently to Egypt, though; they go back, to Indonesia, to Pakistan, to Europe and the Americas, and so on, enlightened by their studies and with their eyes opened to a different culture.

Mention of Egypt makes me bring up the point that “international students” should not refer solely to non-westerners entering western institutions. Just as people from all parts flock to the highly regarded but more recently established universities of the Arabian Gulf, we should be encouraging Europeans and Americans to study in China, in South Asia, Africa and the Global South.

Their universities are rising up the international rankings. Let anyone who dares suggest they are not good enough encounter the sharp minds I have witnessed at the University of Malaya or read the world-class research produced by higher education institutions in Singapore.

This should be a realm kept free from the rivalries of international politics. For any “idea of a university”, many of which have been posited over the years, surely must be inclusive, generous and collaborative – everything that wars over university students are not.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National