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Student Diversity in the UK - It Shouldn't Be Just About Economics

26/01/2015 15:59 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

A few months ago, when reducing international student numbers in the UK was high on the political agenda, some of the measures taken by the government were met with widespread outcry: this is damaging our economic interests, some critics said, because non-EU students are worth £14billion to the national economy. Sure, that's a fact, but a much more important argument was ignored: international students are of great importance to the quality of our higher education.

Things have changed a lot in higher education in the last 25 years and, contrary to what grumpy voices might suggest, a lot for the good. In particular the quality of the classroom experience has improved enormously. At our universities and business schools, classes offer a rich mixture of cultures, nationalities, and gender. In postgraduate programmes like top class MBAs even the academic disciplines are mixed carefully together.

Some years ago I was introduced to a piece of research at Harvard. They compared performance of mono-cultural teams versus multi-cultural teams. The result was far from shocking: the mono-cultural teams either did much better or much worse than the multi-cultural teams. But actually, that observation is more interesting than it looks. The reason why some multi-cultural teams did better or worse was primarily due to the way the team was managed: whether the leader would impose a dominant cultural view or actually take advantage of the richness of the multi-cultural experience within the team. So, with the right leadership multi-cultural teams have the ability to outperform mono-cultural teams. In a world where prosperity is dependent on the effective interaction with globalisation, that is an important message.

Studying in a learning environment with students from across the world gives graduates a big boost in their career. From a national point of view, in the medium to long run this ability contributes substantially to the prosperity of the nation. The economic success of London is heavily based on that multi-cultural, multi-national dimension.

Of course, multicultural is not just about multinational cultures. It is equally about students with different social-economic background being brought together. Or about mixing boys and girls. Yes, there is evidence that if girls study without boys at secondary school, they do better at A-levels, but especially at post-secondary level I would be very sceptical that this is the best preparation for later life. Getting top scores at A-levels is important in our educational system because it is the major selection mechanism utilised by most universities. So while I can understand the practical case at primary and secondary levels, at post-secondary levels it most certainly has to be the argument that the more we are able to mix genders, the better this can be in quality terms. So more girls doing STEM and more boys doing languages clearly should be a major aim to enhance the learning experience.

This does not just apply to education. The discussion about the need to have more women in boardrooms is in essence an identical argument. It is not just about being fair; improved diversity is a clear commercial self-interest. But the self-interest is not always recognised. Or people do not realise what is needed to make a more multicultural environment a positive rather than a negative element.

The culturally richer and multinational learning environment is also an important factor of establishing networks. We all know that studying creates often lifelong 'old boys and girls' networks. Nowadays, in order to be really successful, it is vital that such networks are truly global, because they will be, at least, as relevant as the domestic contacts in any career. Times have changed. The world is a truly global place. Education needs to prepare the new generation for that.

The main discussion should be about how educators can make sure that classrooms are as diverse as possible and how to use their teaching skills in ensuring students get optimal benefit from such a rich, multicultural, multinational, privileged learning environment that many UK colleges now are able to offer. It is a major factor in making study in the UK world class.

I understand why the argument in favour of international students is expressed in hard economic facts, but the academic quality arguments are equally or probably even more relevant for our prosperity and well-being as a nation in the long term. Quality has a clear economic relevance - as long as we are able to look beyond short term objectives. That is something else we should make more prominent in our teaching, especially for the benefit of politicians.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is rector and chief executive at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF)