24/05/2017 09:35 BST | Updated 24/05/2017 09:35 BST

It's Not Too Late For The Government To Embrace International Students

Earlier this year, The House of Lords passed an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would remove international students from net migration figures. True to form, the government quietly removed this amendment in a pre-election 'wash up' when the bill was sent back to the House of Commons.

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Earlier this year, The House of Lords passed an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would remove international students from net migration figures. True to form, the government quietly removed this amendment in a pre-election 'wash up' when the bill was sent back to the House of Commons.

It's the latest stage of Theresa May's long campaign against overseas students - a single-minded and irrational mission that has resulted in wrongful deportations, the perpetuation of ugly myths about phantom student overstayers, and a decline in long-term immigration to study of 71,000 between YE June 2010 and 2016 - 30 percent of the original total (234,000).

This mission is rejected by the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer; it's rejected by an overwhelming majority of the British public; it's even rejected by Enoch Powell and those bleeding heart liberals over at UKIP. It's not hard to see why. International students make an enormous contribution to our institutions, our economy, our local communities, and our soft power.

Despite this, the government seems intent on alienating and deterring them from coming here. If it continues to do so, our universities, our international standing, and our finances will be poorer for it.

The 'student killer' of No. 10 strikes again?

China is a global economic powerhouse and we self-evidently want to expand our trade with them. Indeed, international education is already our second biggest export to the country. However, in China they reportedly call Theresa May '留学杀手', which translates literally as 'the student killer'. As we roll out the red carpet for Chinese tourists, we pull up the drawbridge for Chinese students, even though every year these students spend four times more in our economy than the tourists. Students should be seen as highly valuable education tourists, not migrants. Policies that restrict them can only stem from blatant economic illiteracy.

International students already contribute £25 billion a year to the UK economy, according to Universities UK research, but if they hope to contribute further by securing gainful post-study employment, they face several roadblocks. Since the government's 2012 removal of the post study work visa, a decision that only six percent of people backed during a government consultation, students who've come to the end of their courses find it very difficult to stay and apply for work.

Only three percent of non-EU graduates transfer to a Tier 2 work visa when they finish their degree. Since students have to leave the country before they receive their degree results, most will have to apply for jobs from their home countries. This means that the UK, even as it battles a prolonged STEM skills shortage, is actively making it harder for qualified engineers to join the workforce.

Compare our system with Germany's - where, in recognition of the national need for manpower, they offer free tuition for all and an 18-month post-study work visa. Yes, we have world-class institutions, but in the face of relatively high fees and hostile visa requirements, it's easy to see why able students might start to look elsewhere.

It's a destructive agenda, and it's not even being pursued because students are overstaying, or burdening our public services. A leaked Home Office report indicated that only one percent of students remain in the UK after their studies in breach of their visas. And yet, whilst students remain in the net migration figures, they will be sitting ducks for further crackdowns.

As Home Secretary, Theresa May claimed that immigration makes it impossible to have a 'cohesive society'. In her first manifesto as Prime Minister, she effectively made this position dogma - reaffirming the last government's commitment to reduce net migration to 'tens of thousands' of people. It's worth mentioning that this policy, according to the George Osborne-edited Evening Standard, is rejected by every single senior cabinet minister. The UK has effectively joined North Korea as one of the only countries in the world that wants to restrict international student numbers.

And yet, what do these international students do for mainstream Britain? Well, they sustain over 200,000 jobs, half of which are in the local economies of every region in the country. They subsidise domestic student fees to the tune of roughly £1.3 Billion each year. They sustain many STEM courses, as well as Master's programmes, and enrich the learning environment for domestic students.

Ironically, according to HESA data, the policies pursued by the Prime Minister have cost 72 UK universities 43,800 international students since 2010. These students take with them around 24,000 jobs from precisely the places that need them most, such as Teesside, Sunderland, Derby and Hull. Simply put, reducing international student numbers just exports British jobs to Canada, Australia and other competitors, as these students increasingly decide to turn elsewhere. Is that really what our Prime Minister and her close advisers desire?

Righting the ship

It's clear that international students can't be left at the mercy of these single-minded, ideologically-driven policies. But what can the UK's higher education community do about it?

One way forward is for university Vice Chancellors to band together and propose a form of self-regulation. This would take responsibility for making sure students leave at the end of their studies out of the government's hands, and ensure appropriate penalties for universities that don't comply. Self-regulation could prevent further heavy-handed and counterproductive visa restrictions of the kind hinted at in the latest Conservative manifesto, and help to promote the UK as a welcoming destination. In addition we, as a sector, need to better demonstrate the benefits for local people, and for mainstream Britain. Initiatives such as the #weareinternational campaign, originated by the University of Sheffield and since adopted by over 100 universities, show that the sector is committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive higher education sector.

Politically, it is not too late to turn things around. Although we continue to lose market share, the UK is still the most popular global study destination after the US - and according to the OECD, the market is growing by six percent a year. A few small policy changes, a commitment to inclusive, rather than divisive rhetoric, and finally removing non-EU students from migration statistics would help us build on these gains. There is still the potential for us to consolidate our standing in the international education community and grow what is surely the number one post Brexit industry growth opportunity.

The choice is clear: rather than continue down Theresa May's unpopular, toxic path, we must welcome overseas students and the tremendous contribution they make to this country.