Mark Field is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee and MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.
Here in the United Kingdom we are rightly proud of our world class universities.
Our global reputation for higher education excellence helps to explain why the UK is such an attractive place for people to study.
Almost 300,000 international students came to our universities in 2012–13. Only the United States matches the strength of this appeal to students from around the world.
A global brand such as this is also fantastic news for our economy. Top international students and academics keep our universities at the cutting edge of global knowledge, technology and innovation. The diversity they bring to campus life enriches the educational experience for British students and helps build strong links with other nations for decades into the future. They bring with them an estimated £7 billion in income, injecting substance into the UK’s economic recovery. What better example of a true British success story in what the prime minister has called the “global race”?
However, there is a twist in this tale. The sheer strength of the UK’s higher education offering means that international students make up a significant proportion of those counted in the official immigration statistics. This often comes as a surprise to those who are not specialists in this subject. After all, few people have students in mind when they express concern about the impact and number of migrants coming to our shores.
This creates a dilemma when it comes politically to managing the tricky minefield of migration. Any uplift in the number of international students means greater scientific, economic and cultural benefit to Britain. Yet it also spells trouble for politicians trying desperately to cut headline immigration figures. A mark of our success therefore acts simultaneously – and perversely – as a badge of failure.
It need not be this way. A new report from Universities UK and British Future shows that students are among the most popular migrants with the public, in spite of their representing one of the largest inflows of people coming to the UK. Even the majority of those sympathetic to the overall aim of reducing migration believe that student migration is a good thing, both economically and culturally. So long as students are genuine, the public believes this issue should be kept apart from immigration policy.
At a time when Britain is seeking to promote industries that can take advantage of global growth driven from beyond Europe, our higher education sector should be challenged and supported to increase its share of the rapidly expanding international student market. This is why it was always a mistake to include the student migrant flow within a target to reduce total immigration numbers.
Politicians are rightly expected to engage with public views and anxieties about immigration, and the government has admirably done so. It will, of course, be an important election issue for all political parties as we approach the 2015 General Election. But it is time politicians made the case that there are different types of immigration.
The new research shows that the public is quite capable of making those distinctions, and, in fact, has a pragmatic and nuanced view about how to select the kinds of migration that best reflect our nation’s interests and values.
There is a broad public consensus that international students are good for Britain. People welcome the income they bring to these shores; they are happy to see the skills international students have gained here help British firms rather than our international competitors; and they are rightly anxious when they see other English-speaking nations aggressively target the lucrative international student market at the expense of British universities.
I hope the report will reassure political parties in advance of next May that the public respects those politicians who put forward a mature and rational case for a managed migration policy.
Above all this is great news for those of us who want our world class universities to thrive and compete internationally. A welcoming approach to international students can clearly be seen to reflect British public opinion, rather than challenge it.