Immigration policy is alienating our students

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Keith Vaz MP. Photo: EKF Diagnostics

Last month, Keith Vaz MP warned the nation that the government’s harsh immigration policy was hurting our international students. Just in time for International Students’ Day last Monday a number of other prominent figures, including the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster and the director-general of the Institute of Directors, have come out saying the same thing. Why does Conservative leadership, under fire from every direction, insist on trying to prevent such a large proportion of our students from going to university? If the immigration and security minister is to be believed, it’s just because the UN is making them.

Right now, the coalition is imposing tighter and tighter visa restrictions on international students. A person from outside the EU wanting to study in the UK has to give precise details as to where he/she is going, find up-to-the-minute bank statements that prove he/she won’t require any public funds, and undergo comprehensive biometric testing, among other requirements. While some of these measures have clear security benefits, the system has become unserviceably bureaucratic and is causing huge inconsistencies from country to country. If international students have to spend as much time proving their worth in visa centres as they would on their coursework, they are not going to want to study in the UK.

That’s simply part and parcel of the voting public’s increasing paranoia around foreign people. The absolution of nationalism is also probably responsible for the recent Immigration Act, which now forces international students to pay about £150 each towards NHS treatment and obliges landlords to make intrusive checks on international tenants starting Monday. However, most disturbingly, the British government insists on including international students in the national migration figures. That means they come firmly under David Cameron’s plan to bring net migration below 100,000. This last policy is by far the easiest to rectify and could be the key to giving international students a proper welcome: if we remove them from the statistics, the government would be under no political obligation to decimate their numbers.

Unfortunately, the coalition’s blatant targeting of international students for public amusement has caused the number entering the UK each year to drop for the first time ever. The minister in charge of immigration enforcement claims to be doing this in the name of international harmony, because the UN advises countries to count students as permanent migrants after one year. But this UN guideline simply has public service number-crunching in mind. There is no reason we couldn’t continue to count the number of students going in and out of Britain and publish the results in a separate dataset.

Universities like Lancaster are the ones most threatened by British immigration policy. Almost a quarter of students at Lancaster University are international. Turning competent students away is not only going to devalue one of the UK’s greatest export markets, but rob Lancaster of a vital source of income – right when University management was counting on undergraduate numbers rising and agonising over new international campuses. These policies could cause more permanent damage if a close competitor for international students, like Australia or Canada, managed to knock Britain out of second place among the world’s most popular destinations for university.

That may sound vain, but every student knows that reputation rules higher education. When international students graduate, they act as envoys for their university and often unknowingly promote British education abroad. The frankly overindulgent reputation of this country for teaching is the reason one in 10 world leaders was educated in the UK. And this reputation is an economic lifeline for the country. We have very few specialist industries, but education is one, and with the help of our international graduates we can turn related industries like science and technology into new specialisms. Hence, as long as countries like China and India are failing to provide enough tertiary education for their rapidly developing population, we have both the right and the responsibility to cater for the rest.

Being an international student must be hard enough as it is. When you consider the bureaucracy of the visa system, the hostility of the general public, and the price of tuition, it’s a wonder we’ve registered any international students this year. One study from Regent’s University London showed that 40% of international students thought they were only welcome in Britain for their money. Clearly, if the government is intent on turning Britain into a 56 million-acre hermitage, we should at least protect our students from the political implications. Although, any more acts of brazen nationalism and international students might just decide not to come here anyway.