Government treatment of overseas students undermines UK universities

By Savi Hensman
August 31, 2012

Withdrawal of London Metropolitan University’s right to accept non-European Union students threatens both individuals and higher education in the UK.

Hardline immigration minister Damian Green declared that deficiencies in the university’s paperwork were to blame. But vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies questioned the claims and warned that his university’s future was at risk, students protested and wider concerns were voiced about the impact on the UK educational sector.

Over 2000 overseas students at the university, even if blameless themselves, have just 60 days to find another place to study or face deportation. Many are part-way through courses for which their families have paid heavily, often making considerable sacrifices, and are deeply distressed. Some marched on Downing Street.

Universities are largely financially reliant on high fees charged to overseas students. UK-based and EU students will also be affected if their courses are no longer viable, and indeed the university overall will struggle. Students at other universities too may now fear that the government might have their own institution in its sights: the move sets a worrying precedent. Many of those who have not yet enrolled but had considered applying to a UK university may opt instead for another country where they can expect their studies to take place uninterrupted by governmental interference.

Students from abroad bring in huge resources to the UK. According to a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research paper published in June 2011, “We estimate the value of UK education exports to be £14.1 billion in 2008/09, with education-related projects attracting a total of £9.6 million Foreign Direct Investment... the value of the education-related export market might be approximately £21.5 billion in 2020 and £26.6 billion in 2025 (both in 2008/09 prices).” At a time when the UK economy is struggling, these are sizeable sums.

The paper claimed, “The government is keen to support the UK education and training sector to develop international partnerships and continue attracting overseas students. Not only does this increase the United Kingdom’s profile on the world stage, but also it provides the sector with opportunities to attract revenue and investment from overseas, which contribute to the UK economy.”

However, anti-immigrant rhetoric is popular with some populations and sections of the public. In May 2012 Universities UK, representing 134 higher education institutions, wrote to the prime minister urging him to reconsider changes to the student visa system which could cost billions of pounds in lost revenues. The latest crackdown will worsen the situation, potentially putting some courses and research projects, or even whole departments, at risk and intensifying the recession.

However universities have more than economic value. Besides benefiting young people and building international friendships, attracting overseas students can add to the sum of human knowledge, since some may turn out to be particularly distinguished academically. It is a shame to squander such potential. Indeed a number of Nobel laureates have at one time been overseas students in UK universities.

The UK government’s harsh behaviour is unjust, lacking compassion and economically and academically damaging. Ministers are under pressure to backtrack, and may yet decide to take a more humane and prudent position before further damage is done.


(c) Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious issues. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.

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