Uncertainty over the policy towards international students in the event of a Brexit emerged as a key point of contention among those wanting the UK to leave the European Union during a debate held by the Science Council.
Jamie Martin, a science policy adviser for Scientists for Britain, argued that opportunities to study in the UK should be equal between EU and non-EU students.
“I can’t understand from a scientific perspective, let alone from a moral perspective, why we think it’s right that a Ghanaian student has less immigration rights and less rights to subsidised fees than an Italian student,” he said, accusing campaigners wanting to stay in the EU of having a “1950s worldview”.
He added that it would “hold the country back 30 or 40 years” if they continued to make it difficult for students from outside the EU to study and collaborate in the UK.
However, another pro-Brexit speaker, Stephen Bush, emeritus professor of process manufacture and polymer engineering at the University of Manchester, took a more conservative attitude, saying that Britain is “doing quite enough” to bring international students to UK universities.
Quoting the Higher Education Statistics Agency, he said that the UK has the highest proportion of foreign full-time postgraduate students of any English-speaking country, at around 60 per cent.
“What we’re lacking is enough British students doing postgraduate degrees,” he said.
The divisions arose at a panel debate organised by the Science Council to discuss the impact that a break with the EU would have on science and higher education.
On the pro-EU side, Julian Huppert, the former Liberal Democrat MP and an academic fellow in computational biology at Clare College, Cambridge, noted that leaving the union would make it harder for European students to study in the UK.
“We shouldn’t shoot ourselves in one foot to help another foot. What we want to do is make it easier for students from anywhere in the world to come here,” he said.
Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of University of Liverpool and vice-president of Universities UK, took a similar stance, saying the UK should be “much more generous in offering post-study work opportunities” for international postgraduates, highlighting this issue as a reason why the levels of Indian students have halved in the UK.
She added: “Voluntarily cutting ourselves off from Europe would undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation and limit international opportunities for UK students.”
A poll of the audience at the debate showed 77 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU, 18 per cent undecided, and 5 per cent voting to leave.