Overseas students are a national asset


Regardless of your individual stance on immigration, there is no avoiding the fact of public demand for lower numbers and stricter border control. The key is finding ways to do this sensibly, with as few downsides as possible for our economy, society, or the migrants themselves.

Cracking down on overseas students is not such a way. It must be one of the single most counterproductive immigration policies currently under discussion in Britain today. The Government feels compelled to try it because it has repeatedly promised the electorate lower overall ‘net migration’ numbers.

This is an unwise measure for two reasons. First makes the total subject to emigration levels – Brits going abroad – which the Government has, quite rightly, neither the intention nor desire to restrict.

Second, it takes no account of the differences between different sort of migrant. Rather than zeroing in on those that drive public concern, such as the low-skilled and those who don’t integrate, it encourages the Government to find reductions wherever it can. And skilled, law-abiding, well-documented forms of migration are easiest to target.

In fairness to Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, her policy is not as bad as a blanket crackdown – according to the Guardian she intends to introduce a tiered system that would penalise low-quality courses and institutions. Given that the UK doesn’t yet have a Which?-style consumer guide to university courses even for domestic students, there may be a consumer-protection case to be made for preventing poor courses from propping themselves up with overseas students who may not know quite what they’re buying.

However, against this mitigating nuance we must count the fact that the Home Office is also considering a crackdown of work visas. Nick Timothy, one of the Prime Ministers key lieutenants, has apparently proposed “restricting the right to work in Britain after graduation to those who attend Oxbridge and the Russell Group of universities.

But we must make sure that any policy continues to recognise overseas students as a national asset. They provide both a key financial foundation for our blossoming university system, a ready supply of talented professionals to keep our businesses competitive, and boost British soft power.

Even with tuition fees, Britain is a long way from having a true market in higher education. Fees remain capped below the cost of delivering a degree (and with most institutions charging maximum fees they don’t provide good price signals for degree quality, either). But no such caps exist for overseas students, who pay high commercial rates for their education. That helps to plug the gaps in university finances the taxpayer would otherwise have to fill.

Britain’s top universities are world-class institutions, and draw some of the brightest, most talented, and most ambitious students from across the world. A lot of these seek work in Britain after graduation – and with the UK trying to gear up to global competitiveness to meet the challenges posed by Brexit, we should be snapping them up. The basic effects of protectionism – favouring select producers, in this case domestic graduates, at the expense of the economy and thus everybody else – will otherwise kick in.

There are grounds for sensible compromise, particularly in light of the glut in graduates and the fact that many jobs now use degrees as applicant filters without actually needing them. But surely restrictions should be based as much as possible on the needs of business, rather than so brutally simple a producer-end filter as “Oxbridge and the Russell Group of universities”.

And those who do choose to return to their own countries after graduation, or seek opportunities elsewhere. They form, via university alumni networks, a new and powerful source of British soft power.

The more of a country’s political and business leaders were educated in Britain – especially if they aren’t essentially driven out afterwards, the more likely British diplomats and exporters are to find a friendly reception and useful contacts. Every one of those people forced to study elsewhere because Britain chose to keep them out is a potential national asset lost to a competitor.

I don’t believe that, in light of democratic concerns and welfare provision, a degree of scepticism about open borders conflicts with a liberal outlook. But such policies need to be properly targeted, otherwise we risk the worst of both worlds: damaging our economy on the one hand, whilst failing to assuage public concern on the other by not tackling the aspects immigration actually driving it.

Henry is the Assistant Editor at Conservative Home. Follow him on Twitter: @HCH_Hill

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