Welcome foreign students before they decide to go elsewhere

Oct 02, 2014

Britain has a proud and enviable history of attracting some of the brightest and best people from around the world to study here. This reputation, built up over centuries, is in danger of being destroyed within a generation. 

The problem is the government’s drive to cut the number of people coming to this country. Students are included in the net migration figures but there is a rising tide of opinion that this should not be so and that we should make ourselves more welcoming to these people who, after all, come here spending money in our economy.

It was heartening to hear such views being expressed at a well-attended fringe event at the Conservative Party conference this week. The host, Bright Blue, describes itself as “an independent think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism.” The discussion, unlike so many around the subject of immigration, was measured, thoughtful and evidence-based.

This year, 500,000 people from all over the globe will be in Britain studying. Even at Milton Keynes College this summer we have had people from Spain, Germany, Brazil, China and Jordan learning English with us. Each of those students, apart from paying their fees, will be renting accommodation, buying food, going out and exploring the country – all of which represent money going into the economy from outside. 

What’s more, with any ordinary luck they will develop greater affinity for us, become more kindly disposed towards us, and that really matters. 

For example, the man who runs the Chinese Central Bank studied at Cambridge. He is on record as saying that when he enters into negotiation with the Bank of England, it’s like he is “coming home.” Everyone likes to deal with people they know or at least understand. This is an example of the kind of soft diplomacy to which education can contribute so much.

The UK is a big player in the education market earning £17 billion per year from overseas – that’s roughly the same amount as brought in by the arms trade and £5 billion more than we make from car exports. 

A highly tortuous and suspicious visa system and the lumping together of all immigration is acting as a break on this trade. For example, research by Universities UK shows that at a time when their nation’s economy is growing apace, the number of Indian students coming to this country to study has fallen by half in the past two years.

For cities like, Milton Keynes, this is a serious problem. Education spending overall has fallen by 3.5% in the past four years and it is essential to maximise revenue opportunities if we are to maintain the standard of teaching and learning. 

Milton Keynes is an open city containing more UK headquarters of overseas companies than anywhere outside London. 

The College is fighting hard to grow its provision but foreign students face a mountain of paperwork and expense to come somewhere where officialdom is far from welcoming.  It cannot be sensible to treat foreign students in this way. Over time they will go elsewhere. For sure, the immigration figures will fall as a result, but so will our balance of payments and our global influence. 

This is not a case of special pleading, but of obvious economic sense. To cut our noses off to spite our faces in the name of controlling immigration would be a very expensive piece of self-mutilation indeed. 

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