The Conservatives’ goal to cut net migration is driven by a “negative account of immigration” that risks damaging UK higher education, the University of Cambridge vice-chancellor has warned.
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz also described the government’s continued inclusion of overseas students in the net migration target as “ludicrous” and “crazy”.
He made the comments in a new pamphlet on immigration and leadership, published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, and at an event in London today.
In the pamphlet, Sir Leszek draws on his own background as the Cardiff-raised child of Polish immigrants. His parents spent two years incarcerated by the Soviet Union in Siberia at the start of the Second World War, before travelling to Egypt and joining the British Army, then settling in Wales in 1947.
“The welcome that my family received in the UK, and the education that I benefitted from, allowed me to aspire to the highest level of excellence, and instilled in me a belief that access to education should be universal, cutting through national, cultural and class differences,” he writes in the pamphlet, titled ‘The personal and the political in leadership: a story of immigration, students and targets".
He argues that higher education leaders need to “stay close to their values and speak up for a new approach and narrative for international students in the higher education sector”.
Sir Leszek writes that “one of the biggest threats currently facing UK universities is the issue of international movement and controls on immigration. It is a threat that clashes profoundly with both my values and the values of all higher education institutions, especially research-intensive universities.”
He adds that leading universities “operate at the very highest level in a global higher education market, competing with institutions from across the world, many of which are better funded than we are”, so must remain be able to recruit international staff and students freely.
Sir Leszek continues that “perhaps in response” to the growth in immigration in the mid-2000s “the political and media narrative has become dominated by a negative account of immigration and a drive to bring immigration ‘under control’, most notably in the Conservative Party’s 2010 general election manifesto commitment to reduce net migration levels to ‘tens of thousands’ a year.”
After citing the economic, cultural and soft power benefits brought to the UK by international students, he warns: “The future of our higher education sector cannot be decided by an intemperate, ill-defined and ill-informed debate on immigration.”
At the Leadership Foundation event, Sir Leszek outlined a number of changes the sector should press for.
“We need to learn from countries like Germany, Ireland, for example, like the United States to make positive efforts to attract students and stop this negativism [around international students]; to make sure we can remain strong competitors in this international education market,” he said.
And Sir Leszek continued: “For goodness’ sake remove international students from the net migration targets. This is one of the most ludicrous measures that we actually have and it seems to be an absolute fixation. It is crazy that we are measuring them at the same time as we are deliberately trying to attract them.”
In a reference to post-study work visas, abolished by the coalition government, he said the UK should “enhance the opportunities for qualified international graduates to stay in the United Kingdom to work, to set up roots, and to create their businesses and enterprises in the United Kingdom for all our benefits”.