International students studying in the UK bring an estimated £8bn to our struggling economy. In the coming decade this figure is expected to double. Given that the government is struggling to kick start the economy, you might think it would be keen to support a key area of growth.
But this isn't the case. Without including international student numbers in the net migration statistics, there is no way that ministers can expect to reach their immigration target. So while our competitors like Australia and Canada are doing all they can to attract more international students, the UK has put a cap on them. There are very few people who seem to believe this makes sense.
Last month 68 University Chancellors and Chairs of Council wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to support universities' international activities. And over the weekend, the Sunday Times published a letter which I signed along with some of the country's leading business figures (). The letter argued that we need to continue to send a clear message that international students are welcome to study here. Even Vince Cable, the Higher Education Secretary, has admitted that efforts to cut student immigration may be "damaging to the perception of how we welcome talent from overseas".
Later this week, the eyes of the world will be on London. The biggest international sporting event will be held in what is surely the world's leading international city. But the Olympics is of course more than a sporting event. Beyond the security, VIP bus lanes and corporate sponsorship there is no greater example of the globalised world we live in. And those truly international citizens will be our leaders of the future. They will have contacts spread around the globe, understanding of cultural differences and relish the opportunity to bounce around ideas with people from other backgrounds.
Of course countries need to control their borders. But the UK needs to be at the forefront of educating the global leaders of the future. We have some of the best universities in the world who need to be able to recruit the best and the brightest students. Sending out a signal that we don't want them here is hugely damaging - a quick Google search will reveal all of the bad headlines which have appeared around the globe.
These negative perceptions won't just damage our economy. They undermine our education system too. A university education should very much be an international experience. UK students should have opportunities to mix with talented young people from around the world. A recent report commissioned by the Council for Industry and Higher Education found that leading employers are increasingly looking for global graduates. This doesn't just mean they want talented linguists. Educated graduates who understand different cultures and are able to work well with people from various backgrounds are highly sought after.
A university system which welcomes international students is a key driver to creating a new generation of global graduates. These are the very graduates who will be deciding which countries to invest in and where to locate their workforces. The government should be doing all they can to ensure they hold the UK close to their heart.
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