We've all the heard the saying 'lies, damned lies and statistics'. In his blog 'Studying' in the Britain - one big immigration scam (29 March) Telegraph journalist Ed West takes this to harrowing new levels. He uses concern over bogus colleges as an excuse to launch an uninformed and grossly misguided tirade against immigration and international students themselves. It seems, however, the only thing that has gone West is the truth about beneficial impact of international students on the UK education system - from educational, cultural and financial perspectives.
Of course there are a few bogus colleges within the UK, and these must be closed to protect the experiences of students studying at these institutions. However, linking this problem to the growth in legitimate international student numbers within the UK and then going on to say that greater international student numbers in itself is bad is nothing less than bigoted, xenophobic, and abhorrently naïve.
What West fails to acknowledge are the benefits that British society, British academia, and the British economy gain from these international students, let alone the idea that bringing the best and brightest students from across the globe to study here benefits UK students as much as non-UK students. Large numbers of students from across the globe often results in a clash of ideas from those with different cultural experiences and this helps to challenge traditional ideas, inspire learning and developing new thinking. This cannot be underrated, however difficult it may be to measure.
There is of course also the financial argument that the income from the fees and other expenditure of these students supports UK universities, bringing in £3.3 billion (Higher Education Policy Institute Report; The Economic Costs and Benefits of International Students , 2007) to the UK economy annually, and whilst I believe that the fees that institutions charge international students are unjustifiably high and risk pricing a number of students out of the market, potentially damaging the diversity of students represented at institutions, West's implication that UK universities are "complicit" in a "scam" is deeply offensive and ignorant.
What is more impacting than this, however, is the extent to which there is added value beyond the fees coming from these students. Even if a majority of international students did stay in the UK after study to work, which they don't with 80% leaving within five years of finishing their study, there is still the argument that in the high skills, globalised economy, we should be encouraging and supporting them to be able to do so to benefit the UK. The HEPI report went on to talk about another £1bn increase in UK GDP resulting from international students working in the UK after study.
One softer and more indirect benefit of overseas students studying in the UK, is the idea that these students take away with them the experience of having physically lived in the UK; using education as a form of international development, which also results in positive attitudes, and therefore increased future trading opportunities, and indeed international relations, for the UK.
Moving on to contribution that international students make to British academia. The government talks about strategically important subjects, ie those which are assumed to potentially boost the economy more than others- Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
Although I lament the fact that these courses have had a value-judgment placed upon them implying that they are 'worth' more, the government can't hide from the fact that at postgraduate taught (Master's) and research (MPhil/PhD) levels these courses and departments are often kept open due to the large numbers of international students. A 2007 Universities UK report showed that in these strategically important subjects 71% of taught postgraduate enrolments and 48% on research programmes were non-UK students. Now, you can speculate that the government should therefore invest more into postgraduate study than it currently does to attract more UK students into further study, and amen to that, but for the time being, those who are in many cases more likely to take up these courses and therefore lead research in these areas and actually drive them forward, are overseas students.
If we value the future of subjects which are seen as necessary to drive the UK economy as being sacrosanct, and indeed as public goods within themselves, then the right-wing media need to leave international students out of their rhetoric. Simply put, without these high numbers of students contributing to academic disciplines, some vulnerable subjects may well find themselves off the radar in years to come. More harrowing a thought, perhaps, is that people like West would prefer to see a UK without overseas students at postgraduate level contributing intellectually to academia which has, indirectly, a positive influence on the British economy through the creation of jobs in various fields as they are driven forward.
"Legalised people trafficking" is how West describes student immigration. Academic tourism, is how I would put it. Although he starts off by discussing a London based institution losing its Highly Trusted status, the rest of his article is nothing less than a misinformed and xenophobic attack on non-EU students, simply for deciding to come to the UK to study and in turn, to contribute to academic fields, many of which the UK depends on for economic growth.
If we value broad, diverse student populations which are mutually beneficial to all those within them, if we endorse the clashing of ideas in an intellectual environment to challenge the status quo within academia, if the UK is keen to develop strategic and vulnerable areas of study, and if we acknowledge the positive economic impact, even excluding international student fees, non-EU students bring to the UK, then I would certainly be swallowing my fear-mongering, intolerant, and narrow-minded choice of words if I were Ed West.