A few days ago, the Sunday Times front page ran the headline "Universities take foreign students ahead of British, drive for higher fees betrays sixth formers". A catchy title to sell papers, but one which has real ramifications for international students on the ground.
You see, as I speak to international students across the UK - from Edinburgh to East Anglia and Cambridge to Cardiff - we are worried. Harmful rhetoric espoused by the government and the media has led to increasing hate crime against migrants and international students are often one of the most likely groups to be victims of crime.
We are easy targets for criminals - we don't have established support networks, we're more likely to be alone, we're more likely to carry important documents on our person because of the nature of our visa status, and we're less likely to report crime because universities are still not doing enough to support us. This makes international students incredibly vulnerable.
Regardless of this, the Sunday Times had a prejudice to justify and it went for it despite a lot of evidence suggesting the opposite. International students don't lead to shortfalls of UK students entering university; in fact they broaden the diversity of university courses. Their fees also contribute to supporting courses and programmes which would otherwise be shut down allowing home students a greater variety of courses to pick from. This is backed up by data from Universities UK and the 157 Group.
Foundation courses were heavily criticised, and said to be churning out international students who were ill equipped to attend university. In fact, these Pathway Programmes and Foundation Courses are run for students who have failed to make their A Level qualifications. They support students by helping them build on their potential to develop academic skills, and in boosting their knowledge of the subject area in order to help them transition into university. Just like pathway programmes, they are a vital tool for the students who need them, and are in no way a "back door" into higher education. If there is concern that there are not enough foundation programmes to help students access university, than perhaps the solution is to fund them better?
International students pay on average 36% more than the actual cost of their course. They pay for their pathway programmes, and it's an extra year they must pay for on top of their degree. The fees for these courses quite often sustain jobs and income for many local further education institutions who have links to international universities. In essence, international students' fees are used to subsidise the education of home students. The picture becomes more complicated with regards to widening participation - most institutions have an obligation to operating widening participation programmes. Since there is no budget surplus from home students' fees, international students are necessarily the only source of funding for these activities. In other words, what Andrew G and Lord Adonis propose would result in less funding for widening participation, directly disadvantaging underprivileged home students. This would be entirely counterproductive to their stated aim and result in poorer quality courses.
The diversity of international students in the UK is vast, as is the courses they choose to study. We need to make sure it stays that way. Many UK universities offer specialist courses that are highly populated by international students, as well as many international postgraduate researchers that are leading the way in academic innovation.
But quite simply, even alongside all of this the data the journalist used was deeply flawed. They are comparing data for international students which is for students aged 18+ entering into their first year of university, to a set of data called ALL r - data collected from all providers (regardless of whether they recruit international students at all) and includes part-time courses, online courses, higher national courses, and teacher training. These four areas have all experienced a significant decline over the past 10 years and none are open to international students. So yes numbers are going down in these areas, but this is not because of international students.
Alongside all of this, there's no real winner here. The Sunday Times got a snazzy headline based on bad data. A journalist got a front page on #fakenews. But international students continue to be a pawn, and are scapegoated, in a wider political game. Universities were silent during the referendum and then all yelled #WeAreInternational when it became apparent their research funding was disappearing. They remain far too silent, far too often.
On campuses across the UK this narrative continues to determine the experiences of international students. A Malaysian student who worked two part time jobs in Malaysia alongside studying to get his scholarship to come to the UK was met by a comment: "they're only here because they're loaded". A Chinese student who was top of her class was told "her English is so bad". International students around the country are being told: "They're taking up the spaces so we can't have them".
International students should not be made to suffer because of the harmful rhetoric and divisive political narrative surrounding Brexit. These students have become easy targets, both on campuses and through government policies, urgent action is needed to show that international students are welcome. To do this, they must be removed from net migration figures, the UK cannot pretend it is open for talent and is a 'global' outward looking nation, at the same time as its approach to international students suggests it is anything but. In order for us to call our education sector truly global, education needs to be accessible to everyone.
I believe there is a global responsibility of accessible education, and UK universities should look at ways they can fulfil this responsibility. We should be looking to facilitate those transformative experiences for students, those moments that inspire them to create positive change in their countries and communities, and leave lasting impact. These transformative experiences are the essence of growth and creativity.
No-one has the right to label an international student as 'deserving' or 'less - deserving' of their opportunities to access education. After all, isn't that the structure that education is meant to challenge?