‘I feel truly ashamed.’ Keith Burnett on Theresa May’s trade mission to India

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

November 11, 2016
India, UK, flag
Source: iStock

University of Sheffield vice-chancellor Sir Keith Burnett joined UK prime minister Theresa May on her recent trade visit to India. In this blog, he reflects on Ms May’s claims that the visit was a success. “I went to India to deliver on global Britain and I have to say that the response I’ve had here in India has been excellent,” Ms May said of the trip. “This is my first trade mission but we’ve seen on this visit deals worth a billion pounds being signed.”

I must be hearing different voices from those that Theresa May is hearing.

Indians who studied in the UK say we don’t act as if we are good friends any more. They say we want their money and business but are not willing to teach their children, even if they pay full whack.

They hear that our universities are allowed to teach and take the money only if Indian students are rich enough not to need a job, or can graduate to a job that pays over the odds in some parts of the UK. The Indians I have met say this is not really friendly at all.

To some, it seems fairly insulting. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and a 50 per cent drop in the number of Indians studying in the UK since 2010 should be the mother of all wake-up calls.

The prime minister says that it shouldn’t matter. She says she doesn’t think they should care about us making it easier for students to come to the UK. She can’t be hearing what I’m hearing. She just wants free trade with India. Free trade means free trade, she says, good for all and nothing to do with students. She even insists that students should be labelled as migrants, which is completely potty. Even Nigel Farage didn’t want that.

In any case, Indians feel doubly insulted by this position.

It was already getting bad when UK home secretary Amber Rudd’s conference speech blew the issue sky-high in the Indian press. Now when I talk to Indians, the hurt is plain. I feel truly ashamed, and don’t want that hurt to be ignored or unheeded. In fact, I’m sure that we need a full-scale response to the danger it heralds.

I have tried to stay positive for the past four years as I’ve seen things rot. I have groaned as changes in visa regulations pushed more and more potential students away. The government has assured us that it was not deliberately trying to reduce the numbers. Well, that may be the truth, but the results are in. A 50 per cent drop!

Other countries are rubbing their hands with glee at our stupidity. Ms May is announcing that her trade mission has seen £1 billion in deals announced for the UK. But remember that international students are worth £14 billion to the UK economy every year. That’s equivalent to more than one major trade mission a month.

What is more, these talented young people build the future links that lead to cooperation and trade. Their tuition fees will pay the wages of Australian and Canadian university staff. Worse still, their wit and friendship will bless others.

It is no good closing our ears or blaming reduced numbers on a misunderstanding of a technical detail. Our stance towards overseas students in terms of reduced numbers or closed visa options is disastrous for our relationship with this great nation. This great nation that we want to trade with so much.

I will not speak of the real harm that these policies will do to cities across the UK, where students are vital drivers of the local economy. Others can speak of that.

But what I want – what I need – to emphasise is how we are destroying hard-earned goodwill with a huge proportion of the world’s population. You should care about this. Your children’s jobs in the future could depend on it. So I’m going to work hard to make our education the very best for potential Indian students, and make the welcome as warm as possible in Sheffield.

Sheffield students, leaders and I founded the #WeAreInternational campaign. I am damned proud of the students and staff across the UK who have joined us to show that we are still the nation that India can be friends with. And I will be working to make clear that the vast majority of Brits welcome students from India and don’t think of them as migrants – 91 per cent, in fact, in a recent survey.

I will work to build collaborations with Indian universities and companies. We will continue to work together on cures for diseases and inventions that will help to make our planet more sustainable.

But I must beg, and I do beg. Please listen to India before it is too late.

Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign to welcome and value international students, staff and research, which is now supported by more than 100 UK universities.


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Reader's comments (10)

Well said, Sir Keith. The lessons of global influence and a pro-British attitude amoing the opinion-formers and leaders of other countries who were educated in the UK from the 1950s onwards have been well and truly forgotten by recent UK Governments. As a recently retired senior academic, I am also ashamed of how we now treat overseas students.
Thank you Sir Keith for being so frank. In my naivety i dont understand who the politicians think they are fooling, but then i guess their horizons are measured in days rather than years.
I found a similar situation when visiting India in July, and speaking to agents who recruit for UK HE, also alumni and business people. The message was that Indian students are increasingly sophisticated in their decision making. This is an expensive investment for them and often their families. They will go where they think they will get the best all round value, from quality of education yes, but job prospects are of course key. Increasingly this means the USA, Canada and Australia.
Many thanks for this analysis. Anyone reading this, please read our letter and petition to Theresa May to safeguard higher education in this recent turn of insularity. Better treatment of foreign students would certainly help https://www.change.org/p/the-cabinet-of-the-united-kingdom-rt-hon-prime-minister-theresa-may-mp-safeguard-uk-higher-education
Most have no problem with students coming here to study, as long as they go home. In the past as you all know, we had fake students studying in fake universities. It went on for years. Fake or real, you could be forgiven for thinking, they all had no itention of going home, which of course they didn't, and still dont. And it goes on and on.This is not about race its about space. This isn't just about bringing money in for Universities, and those who work there either!
What happens with the UK under Brexit and May, it hurts. What happens with the US hurts too. Academia may have an historic role in the social healing. Is good to coagulate as a large unformal academic body, but please exceed the this aria, open a wider dialogue on several social an professional levels. Is academia only a source of professionals, a public convenience, a simple provider delivering at home?! Or a major source of intelligence, a public guide, a trusted mentor to follow, above all infatuated politicians!? Science is the modern power and it is the now the time to see that. I wish you the best of luck on all the good actions you are planning ahead. (Replace Europe with India in the 8th paragraph, maybe... although it makes sense the same)
It's my rule to challenge middle class ignorance wherever it surfaces. Here are a few pointers for Sir Keith as he luxuriates in his shame and moral superiority. Let's accept that a highly paid internationalist (like Sir Keith) is rational and not biased. Let's agree that migration (in total) is a good thing. Let's suppose it helps grow the economy, it brings the benefits of diversity and upgrades the talent pool and is very popular with highly educated middle class professionals like Sir Keith. Despite all this there's a problem. These arguments have been widely promoted for many years and they are rejected by some voters. This problem is growing and now includes enough voters to vote for Brexit or a demagogue like Trump. That's a crisis. Mrs May, cannot observe this from an ivory tower (even in India). She has to respond to democratic push. If she does nothing she will risk losing power to an even more populist and dangerous movement. Mrs May has to limit migration even if it damages the economy (at the aggregate level) and reduces the earnings of the University of Sheffield. It's an ugly unsatisfactory political reality. Understanding this Sir Keith might help you feel less ashamed. And, if you can understand this your intellectual curiosity might prompt you to explore further. You might like to imagine what it has been like to live through the transition that many British white working class voters have experienced in the last twenty years. Not only have their incomes and status declined, their neighbourhoods have been through traumatic change. Let's use the London Borough of Newham as an illustration. This traditionally poor borough has low cost housing so it has long been a reception point for migration. According data from ethnicity.ac.uk. (graph and link below) in 1991 it's population was 215,561 and its ethnic profile was 56% white British. This showed that it had already diversified substantially from the normal UK ethnic profile. In 2011 it's population had grown to over 306,998. From my knowledge of Newham I'm confident there has not been a matching increase in housing stock. It's character has been materially changed by squeezing the equivalent a new town the size of Barnsley into multiple occupation of poorly designed Victorian terraced houses. Overcrowding is one of the reasons why Newham has a TB problem. The proportion of white British citizens (who aspire to a nuclear family residential lifestyle like Professors have) has declined to 17%. These bare facts do not show the stark ethnic concentration (segregation and tension) that lack of migration management has resulted in. There are many Newhams in the U.K. Sir Keith. They are not happy imiddle class university campuses. They are low income, deprived communities. They have been transformed. They have been abandoned by those white British occupants who had the means to fly but no power to resist a level of change they did not feel comfortable with. The shock of this change, which shows no indication of levelling out or being shared more equally with more prosperous areas, explains why so many British White voters are putting pressure on government. We - that's the highly educated, well paid, middle class who benefit from migration like you and me Sir Keith - can make ourselves feel superior by condemning white working class opinions as racist, ignorant, self defeating, bigoted etc etc. However, a more mature and intelligent response might be to consider if it is healthy to allow migration to continue in this way. A recent report by Professors Cantle and Kaufman from Birkbeck (see below) highlights the risks of segregation and suggests that white British people should be encouraged to move back. A braver report might have suggested a moratorium on migration with more intelligent preventive action to manage reception and integration so that it does not feed this dangerous social, political and economic division. The British working class are just as capable of building strong relations with a diverse mix of ethnic neighbours as their university educated superiors but it's hard to imagine any group, however well educated that would not object to displacement on the scale that has fuelled UKIP and possibly even IS in Britain's poorest communities. Perhaps the knock-on effect of shock therapy in migration policy is sufficient to prompt a widening of deeply entrenched, perhaps even bigoted opinions, in intellectuals like Sir Keith whose blog clearly shows way too much focus on his own little (internationalist) world. Reading for Sir Keith's http://www.ethnicity.ac.uk/medialibrary/briefings/localdynamicsofdiversity/geographies-of-diversity-in-newham.pdf https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/01/call-for-action-to-tackle-growing-ethnic-segregation-across-uk?CMP=share_btn_fb
The University of Sheffield has used its 'internationalist world' to create 550 industry sponsored apprenticeships in Rotherham, sitting right on the Orgreave site. No lectures please on working class communities when it is out there with sleeves rolled up.
@Ken.charman_260628 I am not sure how what Burnett has said links to your reply. You talk about migration to London boroughs and displacement of the low-income white working class, he is talking about deterring talented Indian nationals who want to study in the UK. Last time I visited hospital I have to say I was pretty glad of the medical help I received from 'migrants'. Whilst I might be an out of touch middle-class elitist, those very same migrants did not (that I saw) have badges that said latte drinkers only. So surely we can agree that some talented hard working migrants have made a positive difference to everyone? Given Sheffield is indeed world class University producing talented scientists, medics and engineers that the world need, this is not where the problem with migration lies. Governments own figures show overstaying students to be a vanishingly small problem. Your wider arguments about the effect of low-income migration have some merit and deserve to be addressed. In doing this I am sure you will not fall into the lump of work fallacy rather your analysis would include the role the UK restriction on housing, the degree of progressiveness of the taxation system, the size of the state, the increasing automation, the silencing of dissent by some smug liberals and societal change (family breakdowns, assortative mating) in the UK all play in the (I agree with you here) dissatisfaction of the average citizen. One interesting measure is that immigration is a reverse Goldilocks problem, almost none (rural Scotland) people are happy with the concept, quite a lot (London) people are comfortable with result but somewhere in the middle (Lincoln, Boston) people are very unhappy. However, your mischaracterization of the points Burnett was making (a narrow point about students) obscures this argument. Rather what you wrote makes you sound like the sort of person who has never a migrant they like and that the route to a happier society is to stop it all. This is a shame because you are right that there is a danger of a serious split in society that will make us very unhappy very soon. There has been too little real attention paid to the problems, concerns and lives of the 'average' UK citizen.
The core issue, as the comment line suggests, is that this is about immigration not education. Indians, and other foreign immigrants, are attracted to UK HE not only for the education that it offers, but for the prospects of employment in the UK: as a means of by-passing immigration restrictions. The debate needs to focus on the debatable benefits arising from continued mass immigration for the indigenous population of these islands - this is a legitimate matter for political discussion.

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