What does 'global Britain' mean if all the foreigners leave?

Between Brexit, coronavirus and counterproductive policymaking, the UK is witnessing an exodus of talent from its shores

epa08815874 A road sweeper outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 12 November 2020. According to news reports Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Senior Aide Lee Cain has resigned. Cain announced he will step down from director of communications after ministers and advisers are said to have protested over his planned promotion to chief of staff.  EPA/ANDY RAIN
Powered by automated translation

Data reported by the official UK's official statistics body suggests that 594,000 foreign workers have left the country in the past year.

It is a staggering figure, and it is reasonable to approach it with a degree of scepticism. Reliable data is difficult to gather amid a pandemic. But if the UK is serious about creating a post-Brexit “Global Britain”, these numbers indicate a trend that should trigger concern in Whitehall.

This has, of course, been a uniquely tough year for the whole world. But the UK’s especially chaotic handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and its economic impacts, has dissuaded many non-Brits from pursuing work or other prospects in the UK.

One hugely profitable sector that has ground to a halt is hospitality, given its close links to the tourism industry. In 2019, there were 40.9 million visits to the UK, bringing $37.5 billion in revenue. A lack of tourists means potentially permanent damage to restaurants, hotels and countless cultural institutions.

Post-it notes reading "Locked In" is seen on a student hall of residence building window, after new nationwide restrictions were announced during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bristol, Britain, November 3, 2020. REUTERS/Paul Childs
British students have grown resentful of spending their university terms confined to dormitories amid the coronavirus pandemic. Reuters

A particularly lucrative part of Britain’s economy is the university sector, in which international students are a fundamental driver. They have become, in many ways, key to British universities’ survival. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, resentment among all students, particularly foreign ones who pay much higher fees than their local counterparts, is growing unchecked.

Over the past decade, since the election of the Conservative party under David Cameron, opportunities for overseas students to live and work in the UK after their studies have been steadily curtailed. The alienation of these students, even after they were labelled a priority in the government’s “Britain is Great” campaign, marks a serious departure from the Brexit brief of creating a global Britain. Fears over their fate have become so severe that in 2016 India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made a prospective UK-India trade deal conditional upon easier access to the UK for Indian students. But with levels of unhappiness reportedly rising among Indian students already in the UK due to a lack of support, will future students from the country even want to come?

A story in The National about a spike in UAE students heading for US universities after the election of Joe Biden demonstrates that the global student body has other options. Many having begun to factor political stability to their calculations; they have never been the most financially secure demographic. And while Britain is still home to the English-speaking world's oldest universities, it may no longer be the safest of harbours.

The numbers indicate a trend that should trigger concern in Whitehall

Many Britons seem to agree with that assessment, too. A study published in August found that migration from the UK to the EU had increased by 30 per cent since the Brexit referendum. The study also established that migrants from the UK were some of the best educated and highest-earning of any group.

A drain of talent, in universities or in the work force, threatens to erase the image of Britain as a global hub. That image was built over the course of the 20th century, in large part as a result of Conservative policies. If Mr Johnson loses the confidence of his most well-educated compatriots, many in his party will not forgive him.