Nicky Morgan is MP for Loughborough and a former Secretary of State for Education.
When asked what Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian President, V.S Naipaul and Desmond Tutu all have in common, the obvious answer would be that they are all inspirational Nobel Prize winners. However, another common thread among them and in fact many Nobel laureates and world leaders is that they all travelled from their home countries to study at UK universities.
I’m fortunate to represent the fantastic Loughborough University in my own constituency. Our universities are high quality, world-leading producers of some of the best home-grown and international scientists, political leaders, writers and peace makers – and in Loughborough’s case, international athletes and sports stars. They and other international students go on to make a real difference across the world and in the UK.
In her party conference speech, the Home Secretary noted that we need to take a look at whether international students across all of our universities really add value to our economy. While they are studying here, research shows that international students at British universities support over 170,000 jobs on and off campus in local communities across the UK. They also generate around £9 billion for the UK economy.
So, are these the kind of ‘immigrants’ we want to stop coming to the UK? Is this where the public’s concerns stem from when it comes to immigration?
Recent polling from Universities UK and ComRes revealed that only 24 per cent of British adults think of international students as immigrants, and, of those that expressed a view in the poll, 75 per cent say they would like to see the same number, or more, international students in the UK. This figure in fact increased to 87 per cent once information on the economic benefits of international students was provided.
The poll also revealed that the overwhelming majority – 91 per cent – of the British public think that international students should be able to stay and work in the UK for a period of time after they have completed their studies.
So it seems as though the public see international students as valuable visitors – and that they would be welcome to stay for some time to continue to contribute to the UK economy.
The Home Secretary has promised a consultation on entry rules for international students which will include different visa rules for “lower quality” universities and courses – but how ‘quality’ is defined needs to be at the heart of this consultation. For example, small high-quality specialist institutions, such as conservatoires, may not always feature in particular rankings due to their size and the range or number of courses they offer, even though they produce some of the world’s most talented artists.
Equally, some of the current most highly ranked UK universities in the world may not score particularly highly in the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework as it currently stands, and it begs the obvious question about whether metrics designed to measure one thing can be hijacked to adjudicate on another matter entirely. We surely do not want a system where international students are not able to study at these institutions, bringing with them local economic and employment benefits.
We must also carefully consider, especially in the context of the Industrial Strategy, the important role that universities play in their regions. Loughborough and Leicester Universities are key players in our current Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Zone bid and attract international expertise in many different fields. International students can also protect the sustainability of many courses at a regional level – often in subjects where we need more UK graduates, such as STEM.
We are absolutely right as a party to do what we can to prevent those visiting the country whether or not they are students, from overstaying and remaining in the country when they have no legal right to do so. Universities also have a role to play here. It is however difficult to really assess the scale of the problem when we do not have accurate exit check data on the number of students overstaying their visas.
While the UK prepares to leave the European Union, it is more important than ever that we remain outward looking, globally facing and open for business, within and especially beyond the EU. We want the next generation of Nobel Prize winners, world leaders and entrepreneurs to choose our fantastic universities, feel welcome in the UK and become our ambassadors abroad as well as our future trade partners. Closing our university doors to such talent will not only be to the detriment to the UK but will also erode our soft power across the world. The UK has benefitted from so many prosperous diplomatic and trade relationships across the world partly due to our education system being such a high value export. This is not just in terms of the billions it contributes to the economy but the fact that many of those students who participate go on to foster positive relationships between their home country and the UK, such as through trade deals and political partnerships.
It is more important than ever that the UK remains competitive and continues to attract the best students from across the world. While the UK is currently second only to the USA as a destination for international students, there is growing competition, with many countries – including Canada, Australia, the US and China adopting ambitious strategies for increasing their international students. The UK risks losing global market share in a growth industry that is worth billions for the UK economy.
The vote to leave the European Union can certainly be interpreted, in part, as a message from voters and the public that we need to reassess our immigration system. It is indeed an opportune time to ensure that the system is fit for purpose and works to our benefit. When it comes to our enviable university reputation, we must make sure that this system continues to allow genuine international students to study here and contribute to our economic growth in every region, to the benefit UK university students.