Migration Watch Claims Regarding Foreign Students are Misleading and Damaging

28/09/2012 11:49 BST | Updated 27/11/2012 10:12 GMT

The past five years of attacks on the credibility of international students have left the UK higher education sector on rocky ground. The foreign press have jumped on the negative sentiment of the UK media and have sullied the higher education sector's once sterling reputation, detailing how foreign students are merely 'cash cows' rather than valued members of the institutions at which they choose to study.

The misleading claim by Migration Watch that non-EU students are simply a source of income that 'prop up the finances' of lesser known universities is more damaging than some might realise. Migration Watch has based their claim - that 90% of students do not go to reputable institutions - on the assumption that every student goes straight to university, which is entirely untrue. Many begin at institutions that offer foundation, pathway or A-level programmes that lead on to university courses. Others choose an institution that may not rank highly overall but has an illustrious specialised programme, such as the Royal Academy of Music or the University of The Arts London, which have 38.6 and 32.8% international student populations respectively. The 'brightest and best' from across the globe flock to these schools with hopes of joining the ranks of their highly successful alumni, but are disregarded by Migration Watch as a mere source of income.

Research by the Migration Observatory indicates that only six per cent remain in the country as students after five years. Despite this, the government labels foreign students as permanent migrants and subjects them to a regular gauntlet of expensive and complicated visa controls. This is compounded with negative sentiment in the British media, which places them under constant scrutiny and criticism; genuine students are increasingly deterred from choosing the UK as their education destination of choice.

The government's election promise to reduce net migration to the arbitrary target of tens of thousands has affected the one group that puts little to no strain on the resources of this country in the long term. Foreign students from outside the EU are restricted in how much they can work depending on their visa, but support the local economies in which they reside for the duration of their stay. International students should be classified as 'education tourists', with real intellectual, cultural, and financial value, and be removed from the net migration count altogether. This is not to say that border controls should be relaxed by any means, but rather that a more accurate picture of the number of people coming to this country with the intention of remaining permanently can be drawn if this group of temporary residents are accounted for and policed separately.

Even this country's most illustrious universities rely on international students for the intellectual and cultural value they bring from overseas. Many of this country's top universities trade on their reputations as global leaders in research and education, such as London School of Economics (with a 42% foreign student population) and Imperial College London (with 36 per cent international students). This prestige would not exist were it not for the long history of foreign students coming to the UK to study and conduct postgraduate research.

During their relatively brief stay, most international students contribute significantly to higher education and the UK economy. They create jobs and forge lasting relationships with the UK aiding the development of 'soft power' in later years. In spite of this, our government and organisations like Migration Watch are throwing this crucial group to the wayside. Our 'gold standard' universities will not remain on top if the rest of the world prefers Harvard to Cambridge. We have a responsibility to protect the higher education sector and subsequently our valuable, genuine, temporary education tourists.