Home Secretary’s “attack” on international students is “perverse and damaging” says university Vice Chancellor

Image above: Students at the Richmond American University, based at Chiswick Business Park

Can’t stop the small boats? Then stop the students

Guest blog by Phil Deans, President and Vice Chancellor of Richmond American University, based at Chiswick Business Park

The fixation on limiting immigration among some in government is threatening profound damage to a vital sector of the UK economy and to the UK’s soft power.

Apparently incapable of tackling the structural issues that see people wanting to live and work in the UK, an easy target has appeared which would create an illusion of success – reducing the headline immigration figure at the cost of destroying the £26bn-a-year international student market.

Last week the Office for National Statistics released figures on UK immigration, which showed an all-time high net migration figure of over 500,000.  Much of the increase was driven directly by government action to support Ukrainian and Afghan refugees, new rules for Hong Kong residents, and recruitment into the NHS, as well as post-COVID movements.

What seized the attention of some though was the record 476,000 visas issued to overseas students. Within hours, noises emerged that there should be increased control of international student numbers, restrictions on accompanying family members, limits to post-study work opportunities, and restricting international students to small number of “high quality” universities.

This followed on from hostile comments from Suella Braverman in October (in her first incarnation as Home Secretary under PM Truss) calling for a clampdown on international student numbers.

This attack on international students and the university sector is perverse and damaging. Our universities are a jewel in the crown of the UK economy and British society.

International league tables routinely show British universities crowding the top 10 and the top 100, far out of proportion to the financial base and state support of their international competitors. The quality of UK higher education is not just at the top, but pervasive throughout the sector. It is rigorously monitored by an independent body, the Quality Assurance Agency, that is the model for the rest of the world.

A student coming to the UK, no matter where they enrol, can be confident of receiving a world-class education whether it is in philosophy, physiotherapy or physics. The Home Office, through the UKVI, is remorseless in its control and monitoring of international students – Home Office figures for 2020 show that at least 98% of foreign students left on time, with the likely figure even higher. Rogue students, like rogue institutions, are vanishingly rare.

Image above: Students at the Richmond American University, based at Chiswick Business Park

International students pay UK residents £390 per person annually

International students generate an annual surplus (after use of public services) of £26bn, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). Even the most cautious and least welcoming Brits rarely twitch their curtains at foreign students. The Daily Mail, not normally a supporter of incomers, was prepared to accept an annual £390 per person benefit across the UK from international students.

Tax-payer support is negligible, and possible costs to the NHS are covered by an up-front payment from each student.  This is before we consider how many students will, on graduation, contribute directly to the NHS as staff or as researchers finding the next generation of therapies and treatments.

Furthermore, international students are distributed across the UK and are able to bring both money and skills to areas identified as part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. International students are permitted to work part-time, so those that do work are not in the grey economy, but contribute directly to the UK’s tax and national insurance income, and fill vital gaps in the labour market.

Image above: Richmond American University

International students’ tuition fees keep university departments open

International students contribute.  They don’t cost.  And they contribute much more than money. The University sector does not ask for government handouts or take finances from other parts of the economy that are in need. Our international students more than pay their way, with their tuition subsidising UK students and keeping subjects and departments viable that would otherwise close down.

During their strictly limited time in the UK they either melt in to the wider British way of life or live happily in a campus community. The overwhelming majority report a positive experience of living and studying in the UK – modest but justified complaints about the weather and occasionally the food notwithstanding.

The quality of the education provided is recognised, as is the welcome of the communities into which the students move. These young people chose their place of study not just on university ranking but because of factors as diverse as proximity to a Premier League football team, Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders, or the hometown of a famous band.

Image above: Students at the Richmond American University, based at Chiswick Business Park

The soft power of a British university education

At university they enrich the classroom experience of everyone, bring diverse perspectives to every topic from medicine to politics, and create friendships and connections that will stay with them, and us, for life.  A recent HEPI report indicates that over one-quarter of countries in the world have a monarch, president or prime minister who was educated in the UK tertiary sector.

This is at the heart of British soft power, the ability to shape the preferences and opinions of other countries through appeal and attraction rather than coercion.  The latest round of headline chasing sees this being sacrificed to placate a wholly unrepresentative subset of people who have hijacked the Conservative Party.

Richmond American University London relocated to Chiswick in August 2022.  We brought with us a diverse student body of around 1000 students from over 60 countries. We have encountered warmth and welcome from our new neighbours in Chiswick, from the local and global companies on Chiswick Park, and from Hounslow Council, its councillors and our new MP.

We have tried to reciprocate by opening our doors for free public talks and lectures covering everything from health and wellbeing, to international leadership styles, to classes on Korean food and K-POP. Our students are volunteering in the community, working with the less fortunate, and delivering environmental projects.

None of this would have been possible without our international student body. One of the Brexit promises was to be able to open Britain to the best and brightest of the rest of world.  It appears the plan for doing this is by slamming the door on talent, and telling those we need most that they are not welcome.

Image above: Richmond American University

Phil Deans is President and Vice Chancellor of Richmond American University London, located on Chiswick Park.  He spent three years as a foreign student in China, and eight years as an immigrant worker (or ‘ex-pat’) in the Japanese university sector. Details of upcoming public talks and events can be found on the University’s website.

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