Why is the government killing off one of our biggest exports?

EDITOR'S BLOG: Foreign students are a massive asset to the UK.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 12 Dec 2016

Those of us who have long suspected that the Brexit vote was mostly the result of a distaste for foreigners in our midst today have more evidence to confirm our worries. The Guardian is reporting that the Home Office’s crackdown on foreign students coming to the UK to study may be even more severe than first expected. The paper reports that Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, is considering cutting international student numbers at UK universities by nearly half.

What a terrific idea. Just because of a few cautionary tales of devious ‘business students’ from the sub-continent who came over and overstayed their student visas, then filled our schools with their offspring and our hospital beds when they fall sick, we now want to keep huge numbers of foreign students out, despite them being willing to cough up billions in fees for their courses. And, then go home to join or build companies in their homelands and use their contacts book of Brits to further trade with us.

But, of course, you can never know who you are letting in. Yes, indeed, it’s about time we cracked down on brilliant foreigners wanting to share their talents, contribute to our economy and make their lives here. Just ask Facebook which employs 65 separate nationalities in the UK. Or our Britain’s Most Admired companies winner ARM which has repeatedly warned how its business would be damaged by such restrictions. It needs to hire plenty of highly skilled engineers and there simply aren’t enough without encouraging overseas students to come and study here.

Rudd pledged the crackdown at the Conservative party conference in October, when she promised to include tougher visa rules for ‘lower quality’ universities and courses. But senior university sources are apparently now warning that the cutbacks could be far more severe than expected. They say they have seen Home Office plans that model slashing overseas student numbers, with one option to cut the current 300,000 to 170,000 a year.

Needless to say the threat is being greeted with dismay by university heads, who say some perfectly good overseas applicants are already being denied visas on spurious grounds. (Reasons given for visa denial apparently include not knowing the opening hours of the university library and being unable to recall the name of the university’s vice-chancellor. I should imagine most UK based students were more familiar with the happy hour opening times at Wetherspoons than either of these facts.)

The Guardian quotes Prof Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University who says: ‘The Home Office seems to have decided that cutting international students is the only way of delivering the manifesto target of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands [a number that was, apparently, just plucked out of the air a few years back to appease the UKIPers] But it doesn’t address people’s concerns about immigration. The problems people are seeing on the ground are certainly not caused by international university students or staff.’

At MT we’ve expressed alarm before at shutting the door on one of our most valuable exports - good quality higher education. Kai Peters, who was the head of Ashridge, wrote this piece back in 2012.

Nothing has changed. In fact the need to secure friends and allies outside the EU is now even greater. If we wish to find our way in a post-Brexit world then why would we deny members of the commonwealth countries the ability to come to study here?

Amber Rudd would do well to recall the eloquent words of her ex-husband AA Gill, the star Sunday Times journalist who sadly died at the weekend. He wrote this pre-referendum in response to the cry from Britons who claim ‘we want our country back.’ 

‘Wanting the country back is the constant mantra of all the outies. Farage slurs it, Gove insinuates it. Of course I know what they mean. We all know what they mean. They mean back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future, back-to-back, back to bosky hedges and drystone walls and country lanes and church bells and warm beer and skittles and football rattles and cheery banter and clogs on cobbles.

‘Back to vicars-and-tarts parties and Carry On fart jokes, back to Elgar and fudge and proper weather and herbaceous borders and cars called Morris. Back to victoria sponge and 22 yards to a wicket and 15 hands to a horse and 3ft to a yard and four fingers in a Kit Kat, back to gooseberries not avocados, back to deference and respect, to make do and mend and smiling bravely and biting your lip and suffering in silence and patronising foreigners with pity.

‘We all know what "getting our country back" means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective "yesterday" with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty. It’s the knowledge that the best of us have been and gone, that nothing we can build will be as lovely as a National Trust Georgian country house, no art will be as good as a Turner, no poem as wonderful as If, no writer a touch on Shakespeare or Dickens, nothing will grow as lovely as a cottage garden, no hero greater than Nelson, no politician better than Churchill, no view more throat-catching than the White Cliffs and that we will never manufacture anything as great as a Rolls-Royce or Flying Scotsman again.

‘The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday. In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning and pomposity.’

The way we are going at the moment, we are in danger of condemning ourselves to becoming a kind of global gooseberry - prickly, sour and unloved.

Image source: Andrew Dunn


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