When Amber Rudd recently announced that she would be continuing the purge of international students started by Theresa May, my heart sank. Brexit has already damaged universities and their ability to attract students and staff. What we needed was a positive, pro-student message, not more distrust and 'Go home' rhetoric. International students boost the UK's economy and skills and recent policies aimed at reducing their numbers have damaged local economies up and down the country at a time of economic hardship and austerity. These targets are not about 'a country that works for everyone.'
Amber Rudd doesn't want to target students. She joins a long list of Tory ministers that have begged Theresa May to end her program of academic cleansing. The Treasury, BIS and George Osborne have all told her about the financial benefit of international students; Philip Hammond asked to remove students from immigration figures in 2014 and again in 2015; Vince Cable and David Willetts, then Universities Minister, also begged for students to be taken off the targets because it was damaging our economy and universities. In each case, the only response has been Theresa May boasting about her success.
The majority of politicians are against targeting students because international students are nothing but a gain to our economy. In 2013, Sheffield University released a report showing that their 8,222 international students brought a net gain of £136.8million to the local region every year. They noted that because students are most often young, single and without children, they take very little from public services and they spend a lot of money on local businesses. Just this week, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield made an earnest plea to welcome students, launching the #weareinternational campaign to raise awareness of the benefits students bring.
If we look at national figures for student immigration, we see how horrifically successful Theresa May has been. When she started as Home Secretary (2010-2011), the average annual student immigration was 235,000. As her policies have kicked in (2012-2015), the average has been 179,000. If we extrapolate the benefit that Sheffield reported to these national figures, it seems that Theresa May's student bashing has been costing the economy about £1billion per year.
Students aren't just a boost to the South East like so many economic benefits. From Fife to Falmouth, regional economies have been suffering because of Theresa May's immigration policies.
Theresa May's line has always been that there is widespread abuse of the system but this week the Times reported that the Home Office is wilfully sitting on a report that proves this not to be the case. Such interference is beginning to look like a pattern. Recent allegations said that before the EU referendum, Theresa May tried to alter a report to downplay the positive benefits of immigration and she has just been accused of covering up racism in official inquiries. The UK looks to be pushing the envelope of post-truth politics.
Far from being dodgy chancers, international students are some of the highest achievers in the UK today. Students from other EU countries are 50% more likely to earn a first-class degree and twice as likely to go on to postgraduate study than their native British counterparts. More than half of UK PhD students are from overseas. The UK is incredibly successful at getting EU research starter grants but in 2016 two thirds of our winning researchers were international.
We should not be surprised that those who are willing to move abroad to study in a foreign language and strange culture are go-getters that are a real boost to their adopted countries. It seems like the public agree. A poll this year showed 57% in favour of removing international students from immigration targets.
To continue to include students in immigration targets would be to pursue an economically damaging, right wing ideology, based on dodgy evidence, against expert advice and without a mandate. Surely Brexit has enough of that already?