These are difficult times, although we have all been through a great deal worse. With enduring concerns about the strength of the economy and increasing ones about national security, governments have an understandable tendency to turn inwards and to focus, perhaps too narrowly, on the economic security of their citizens. The universalism of universities, their mix of nationalities and of ideas, suggests a different response.
We have never been impervious to the politics of the times. Universities have long survived international unrest, political turmoil, revolutions, reformations and papal schisms. My own institution, the University of St Andrews, was founded 600 years ago, when it became unsafe for Scottish clerics, followers of the antipope Benedict XIII, to travel to France. The University of Oxford emerged 250 years earlier, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Today, we will all be impoverished if students from other countries find it too costly, too difficult or too unwelcoming to travel to the UK to attend our universities.
Far from being a drain on the economy, foreign students are major contributors. In 2011‑12, the higher education sector as a whole generated £10.7 billion in export earnings for the UK. British universities attracted more than 435,000 international students, who spent £4.9 billion on goods and services off campus and £4.4 billion on tuition fees and accommodation. Nearly 20 per cent (£13.9 billion) of the output generated by the sector, not to mention 137,000 jobs, can be attributed to the enrolment of non-European Union students.
The true value of international students, of course, is not captured by these figures. They enrich the cultural life of our universities and enhance the educational experience of everyone who teaches and studies here. At St Andrews, 45 per cent of our students hail from outside the UK; in our School of International Relations, the figure is 70 per cent.
I teach seminars on terrorism each year. In these classes it is rare to find more than one or two students with the same nationality. The experience of being in a classroom and exploring the motives of terrorists or the roots and tactics of terrorism in a situation in which nobody shares your assumptions, every shibboleth is subject to scepticism and the holder of every opinion is respected, is what education is all about. This is simply invaluable and will prepare our students to engage fully in the globalised multi-ethnic world in which we now live.
So rather than raising the barriers to UK entry for foreign students, we should be lowering them. The number of new international students here declined in 2011‑12 and again in 2012‑13. In some cases, the change was dramatic, such as the 49 per cent drop in Indian student numbers: a survey of those who decided against studying in the UK cited the country’s attitudes towards international students and perceived difficulties in obtaining visas as reasons for their choices. Rather than insisting that foreigners educated here leave on graduation, we should be providing incentives for them to stay and to commit their education and energy to the British economy.
There is a certain irony in the fact that through the highly successful Sutton Trust Summer School Programme, low- and middle-income UK students (three-quarters of participants come from families with household incomes under £25,000) are gaining admission and financial aid – more than £9 million for 58 students this year – at top US universities. This is happening at a time when American and other foreign students are being prevented from working to pay for their studies here. In effect, poor British students are going overseas to get a “debt free” education; by contrast, only wealthy foreign students will be permitted here.
Another manifestation of turning inwards is state efforts to enlist universities and their student associations to monitor extremist speech as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
In February 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke at the 20th anniversary of the first transmission from Voice of America, the US federal government’s official external broadcaster. He said: “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
We should not be afraid to entrust our universities with objectionable speech: indeed, it is precisely there that it should be heard and refuted. The internet will ensure that those who want to hear such speech will do so, but by banning it from our universities we deny our teachers the opportunity to model to our students how to submit it to reasoned scepticism.
St Andrews was at the very heart of the Scottish Reformation. Across the university and the town are markers where people were burned at the stake for their beliefs. We are daily reminded that violent religious fundamentalism doesn’t just happen elsewhere, but we have made progress. In 1720, a local family inscribed on one of our many stone walls: “They have said. They will say. Let them be saying.” Let them say what they choose and let what they say be challenged. Let our students practise what they have been taught, to subject all ideas to critical analysis.
Universities thrive not only by bringing many nationalities together, but also by forcing different ideas together, too.
In a time of economic uncertainty and political insecurity, it is natural to want to retreat inwards, but the strength of the UK economy and its universities lies in our openness.
Principal and vice-chancellor, University of St Andrews
Louise Richardson will become vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford in early 2016.