How we want to stop being anxious, even sometimes ashamed, of our dear Great Britain. To many of us, that means stopping Brexit. But we haven’t got a hope in hell of getting that from our new prime minster. Bugger.
Yet there is one way in which the UK can preserve and enhance its international nature. Not all of it, mind you, but we need as much as we can get. So, hard as it feels, we must focus on what’s possible now.
How? By fully opening our country to scholars from around the world. We know from what our new PM has said in the past that, on this at least, he agrees. In public and in private, he has acknowledged that the approach of his predecessor, Theresa May, was damaging nonsense. From the back benches he supported an amendment calling for change to visa policy. From the front bench, he should implement it.
Boris has famously been mayor of one of the world’s greatest cities so he has seen the power of gathering international talent. He gets that there is a need to say loud and clear to those who make our universities their home, “You are welcome here!”
He also knows from University UK’s polling that the whole country – not just universities and Remainers – welcomes these students and scholars. In fact, he is hearing from businesses, from regional mayors and of course his own brother, Jo Johnson – who has just been reinstated as universities minister – that they all now want sanity to prevail over intransigence.
They are saying we must overhaul visa policies that have given the impression of hostility to the very students and scholars who make great the universities Boris praised on the steps of 10 Downing Street.
So now is the time to make rhetoric a reality. We should say loud and clear that we need more of the openness to international talent that Boris’ team lobbied for when he was mayor of London, in the full knowledge that London’s tech economy depended on it.
This call is echoed by cities and towns across the land that are also desperate for the skills and prosperity visa change would bring. They know their universities are mini capitals, hubs of youthful internationalism, stimulating innovation and prosperity. They urgently need this talent if they are to stand a hope of securing the highly skilled future economies they crave and to withstand whatever Brexit throws at the country.
And it isn’t just Boris. Jo has pushed to keep the talent pipeline open, with cross-party enthusiasm for change from Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists. Whatever our disagreements on other issues, we must support this to the hilt because a shift now could go beyond post-study work visas for students – it would give powerful encouragement to the international education strategy to really go for the growth we need.
So we must keep up with the advocacy, working across the sector and beyond, as we have done so tirelessly on this issue. We have all the evidence we need because of the wonderful work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group led by Karan Bilimoria and Paul Blomfield, and the stubborn assertion of benefits by Nick Hillman at the Higher Education Policy Institute.
To that we must continue to add the stories that always move more than statistics – like the tale of my young postdoc fellow from Iran or his colleague from India, both of whom are working with me just this week in Oxford. They’re researchers seeking to understand the causes of disease and to mitigate their cruel consequences.
You must also tell your stories with the conviction that comes from knowing that what you are saying is both important and true.
And we must remind this new government of the terrible cost of not acting. Of losing the insights and innovation that are so fundamental to any hopeful future. Just this week Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan – another precious immigrant – wrote to his fellows to explain his active lobbying on the punishing visa costs for researchers coming to the UK.
Indeed, upfront costs for an individual to come to the UK are more than £8,000 compared with the £1,500 average across other recruiting scientific nations. That £8,000 goes up to nearly £12,000 if they want to bring a partner or spouse and goes up again if they want to bring children. It will take prime ministerial clout to ensure the newly out-sourced visa service dances to a new tune on the free movement of talent.
And we do know that prime ministerial intervention can be for good or ill. Some of you may remember my criticism of Theresa May’s approach, which put in place barriers to accepting talent to the country.
When I visited India with her and listened in dismay to a cold, stubborn unwillingness to welcome the gifted Indian scholars who have so long been crucial to UK universities, I wrote in Times Higher Education that these policies and attitudes made me ashamed. I said her stance was “potty” and – despite having been warned by a senior adviser that my comments were ill-received in Downing Street – I remain convinced that these harsh policies have done great damage.
For the next few months, the eyes of the world will be on London. Now is the time to address the insult felt by many Indian students and academics – and indeed others from around the world – who turned away from the UK as visa costs rose and the ability to offset them through post-study work was removed.
My personal plea is that a new PM will take long overdue action to heal the hurt of my dear colleagues and past students.
So, what should the prime minister do? On this, at least, he should follow his instincts. He should use his unique opportunity to do good for the UK by unshackling our world-class universities.
Please Boris, put this right with bold action on visa policy that signals change. If we want to be a truly global Britain, to be open to the world, it begins here.
Sir Keith is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, a member of the Prime Minister’s Council of Science and Technology and founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign.
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