Immigration is vital for UK science to thrive

Suella Braverman’s threats to ‘significantly reduce’ international student numbers are a direct threat to growth, says Keith Burnett 

October 16, 2022
A Western and a Chinese scientist work together
Source: iStock

“We are a small country.”

I heard these words spoken at the US National Academy of Sciences’ Endless Frontier symposium in Washington, DC just a few weeks ago. The speaker was warning the audience that more clever people were born outside the US than inside its borders – and that to maintain its scientific pre-eminence, the US must continue to attract those brilliant minds.

These words came back to me as I subsequently attended a dinner at St John’s College, Oxford. Many of the people I saw around the room were born far from Shakespeare’s “precious stone set in the silver sea”. If the US, stretching from sea to shining sea, is small in global terms, how much more so is the UK. And how much more compelling the need not to regard its coastal waters as “a wall/ Or as a moat defensive to a house”.

The presence of so many gifted international scholars at that Oxford dinner made me feel safer. But I also thought of the danger that in the years ahead, the UK – so much less wealthy than the US in every aspect – might lose them if we fail to appreciate what they bring. We all know the blow that UK science has suffered due to Brexit. We have heard disturbing tales of gifted scholars on the move because of the impending loss of access to Horizon Europe.

And then came the comments of the new British home secretary, Suella Braverman, at the Conservative Party Conference. In a reversal of the optimism of the Johnson-era International Education Strategy, we heard a desire to “significantly reduce” international student numbers as part of a post-Brexit commitment to reduce immigration numbers to the tens of thousands. There were complaints about postgraduate students with dependents – how dare these talented students want to live with their families? – and unevidenced assertions that international students were “propping up poor-quality courses”. For a government supposedly committed to growth and talent, it was a shock. It was also a shameful step back to a rhetoric we hoped we had left behind. 

So what can we do? 

First, we in UK universities must reach out to our colleagues from overseas and make sure they know that we value them in every sense. That we believe the strength of our academia has come from openness. That we will speak out to defend their presence and role among us, and that we will push back against any who would constrain our ability to continue to draw students, teachers and researchers from around the world to our academic communities.

And we must force our politicians and influencers to look across the sea and consider why nations fail. They fail when they look inwards. They fail when they believe that it is their intrinsic merits that made them great. We must ensure they understand that the greatest production of wealth in recent years has followed developments and innovations that have often been led in the great universities of the world.

Understanding the peril of isolationism is true defence of the realm: politicians’ first duty. If we want the next generation of vaccines and medicine, the great developments in AI, health, green energy and many other technologies to accrue to the UK, we shall need intellects from across the world to be happy to bring up their children in our midst.

And we must acknowledge our debt of gratitude to them. As the UK government has frozen the amount it is willing to pay for undergraduate education over the past decade, it has been the parents of our international students, attracted by the reputation that international scholars helped build, who have kept UK research and innovation afloat. A full £1 in every £4 spent on UK research derives from such cross-subsidy. There is no alternative to that on offer from government.  

If we want to kill growth, let’s build that wall, dig that moat. But if we genuinely want growth, let’s not put innovation at risk through misguided immigration policies or a lack of appreciation of how science works.

As the former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge Stephen Toope told Times Higher Education just this week: “No single institution, no single country, even the biggest, has the capacity to do all of the work that’s necessary to advance really complicated issues like climate change, infectious disease, etc. We need to collaborate.”

Science is international. The UK’s precious stone will only shine bright with the brilliance of minds from across the silver sea.

Sir Keith Burnett is president-elect of the Institute of Physics and a former head of maths and physical sciences at the University of Oxford and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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