International student figures: dawn rises on a dark world of falsehoods

The battle is not over for universities, but this week’s figures on international students are vindication for an embattled HE sector, says Sir Keith Burnett 

August 25, 2017
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If, like me, you have waited and hoped for a change in government policy on international students, you are probably feeling some relief and some well-deserved hope.  

Yesterday’s statistical announcements on UK migration numbers confirm what many of us have thought for some time. The number of international students staying beyond the time permitted by their visa regulations is extremely small. Previous estimates of some 100,000 “overstayers” were nonsense, based on what we always said was a deeply flawed method of surveying passengers in airports. That figure now appears to have been incorrect by more than 95,000.

This week’s figures correcting that deeply damaging error feel like dawn coming in what has been a dark world of falsehoods. But we have also seen several false dawns in the past few years, and we should keep our plans for any celebrations on indefinite hold.  

We know that we have many allies inside and outside Parliament who have listened to our case over the years. Cross-party select committees and even members of the Cabinet have called for change. In the House of Lords and the House of Commons, in business and in our various partner bodies we have found allies who want to right this wrong. 

I feel personally indebted to them all, in particular to the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students led by Paul Blomfield and Lord Bilimoria. Both have been wonderfully persistent in keeping the rational case alive with lawmakers, and have spoken out on this issue. They will have more to do in the months ahead.  

And of course we have wanted and needed to work with students. For all that our critics seek to divide us into consumer and provider, the values of international education mean the world to teachers and students alike. We will continue to speak together for our precious global communities of scholarship.  

Now we sense a moment of opportunity, but we would be fools to be complacent. Instead we need to get ready for the real debate that home secretary Amber Rudd’s announcement of a review of the impact of international students will set off.  

If the past few years have taught us anything, it is surely that we cannot assume that our desire to preserve the values of openness is shared. Xenophobia and accusations of elitism lie near to the surface. We should expect our views to be tested in every way. We hope for the best and prepare for the worst.  

We’ll dust off the arguments that we have made in the past for the contribution that talented international students make to all our communities; for all the investment that it has driven inside and outside our universities. We have the data but we’ll need to make use of everything that we know and can justify, by hard numbers, to make sure that the benefit to the UK is fully appreciated. 

And we must not be surprised by a counter-attack from those for whom the facts will not matter. Perhaps we shall see more raw xenophobic comments – a brief look at the tabloids makes clear that it has already begun in some quarters. Views that have been cloaked in the past by arguments about standards or the avarice of universities can lead to utterly untrue claims that international students take opportunities away from UK students, when in fact we know that the opposite is true.

So many of our wonderful facilities and the opportunity for our young people to study costly subjects have been underpinned by students from China, India and the rest of the world.  

We must also anticipate the right-wing press printing any horror stories they can of international students’ behaviour. Never mind that we know how much international students give to local communities through volunteering or how seriously most take their studies. All UK students for the purposes of these articles will be perfect by comparison.  

We will need to respond to this seriously and speak to others to make our case clear. In Sheffield, my adopted city, the economic case is devastating, and we shall be making sure that the business voice from across our region is heard. And that is a key point. It is others, not just universities, that will be key speakers in the upcoming debate. Let’s make sure that they have the opportunity to speak.

But to me this is much more than a case for economic benefit that is enormous and undoubted. It is, more than anything, keeping the faith with a community of international students who have believed us when we said #WeAreInternational. Not “They”, but “We”.  

We will not leave our dear students, colleagues and friends to face unjust criticism alone. Reputations have come unfairly under attack and rhetoric has been hurtful. We will stand together and mobilise our case in all its fullness. We have right on our side, and we will continue to speak up for universities that are home to talented staff and students from around the world.  

Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign. 

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