Knockin’ on Britain’s door

The government is a broken record on overseas student numbers when all the evidence suggests that academic mobility is a win-win situation

October 20, 2016
Man knocking on Britain’s door
Source: iStock

What can be said about Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate, that hasn’t already been said? The answer, my friends, is that Dylan is one of the few Nobel prizewinners this year who is not a Brit by birth who later went to America to define a career.

Five out of nine laureates in the core prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine and economic sciences were born in the UK. All crossed the pond as rather valuable immigrants to the US. It is also worth noting that all this year’s laureates are men.

It’s clear that for the baby boomer generation, being a man and doing your research in the US were both huge advantages.

The question is whether the same will be true for the early career researchers coming through today – and in our news pages this week, we look at the data for a number of science funding schemes around the world.

There are some positive signs. However, there is also continuing evidence of the so-called leaky pipeline that sees women in science careers fall by the wayside.

As for the question of academic mobility, there’s every reason to believe that the US is as attractive as ever for rising stars born elsewhere. In the UK’s case, the decision to leave the European Union has left universities reeling, and put the future standing of its research at risk.

The potential loss of access to European Research Council funding is bad enough. Worse still is the message that has been sent about the country’s stance on mobility and attitude to incomers. Make no mistake, there are plenty of other ambitious, open, outward-looking nations that will take promising researchers looking for a new berth and back them with funding to boot.

The issue is being compounded by senseless political rhetoric about international students. Theresa May, the UK’s prime minister, and Amber Rudd, the home secretary, have committed to ramping up the long-running crackdown.

The implications for universities are enormous, both financially and in terms of the effect on campus and in the classroom. They are even graver for certain disciplines, which rely for their survival on international students, while the country as a whole will lose immeasurable influence if it chokes off the flow of graduates who come to study and then return home to build successful careers.

This last point is particularly significant in light of revelations that the UK government has been sitting on an analysis that suggests that far from the Home Office estimates that one in five international students overstays their visa, the real figure is more like 1 per cent.

The argument that students don’t go home has long been used by May as a rationale for refusing to remove them from the net migration figures, which she has pledged to dramatically reduce.

If she now has evidence to the contrary, it would be an astonishing act of self-sabotage for a prime minister who has pledged to carve out a new global role for her country to not only ignore it but bury it.

The UK has voted to leave the EU and, like it or not, the times they are a-changin’. But May must see sense on the international student issue, as on the free movement of academic labour. If she fails to, Britain really will be left blowin’ in the wind.

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