The public does not share government hostility to international students

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The writer is president and provost of University College London

Over the past few days, we have seen a strong coalition of support emerge for international students and the huge value they bring to the UK. From the independent body that advises the government, the Migration Advisory Committee, to business leaders and local communities, the message is clear: it would be an extraordinary act of national self-harm for the government to curb the right of these students to stay in the UK for two years after they graduate.

It would also be bad politics, as a new poll from Survation has found. The majority of voters think cutting student numbers is the wrong immigration priority for the UK and understand the important economic contribution international students make to this country. They recognise that many return home, with only around a third of students using the graduate visa to remain here. They know that international students boost businesses and local communities: modelling by consultancy London Economics shows that a single cohort has a net economic benefit of £37bn to the UK economy.

A significant consensus emerges in the survey: 57 per cent of people think illegal immigration should be the priority and an even larger majority, 66 per cent, think that the post-study visa should allow international graduates to work in the UK for the two permitted years — or even longer.

Just 2 per cent thought that restricting the ability of students to stay in the UK and work after their studies would be a good way of tackling high immigration and only 1 per cent want the government to focus on reducing international student numbers. (For comparison, 45 per cent say that blocking small boat arrivals should be the priority.)

There is a plethora of data that explains the economic benefits and the contribution of international students. The survey shows that the British public understands this better than the politicians give them credit for. They also understand that they are not taking the places of their own sons and daughters who aspire to university and that the extra overseas fee income makes it possible to fund their places.

However, I think it is the individual stories that make the broader impact clear. We have remarkable alumni. Udit Singhal came to UCL in 2020 to study management sciences in order to develop the business he had conceived at age 16, Glass2Sand — turning glass bottles into building materials. By last year, Glass2Sand had taken 270,000 kilogrammes of carbon out of the atmosphere; Udit was recently listed on Forbes India’s 30 under 30 and appointed as a UN’ Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Examples like this show that the value of international students is much greater even than their financial benefit to our institutions and to our wider economy.

And international students forge connections here that last well beyond the time of study — this enriches the experiences of home students, breathes life into the cultural and social fabric of our communities, and strengthens the UK’s status on the world stage. Introducing restrictions on the freedoms of international students to stay and work here after their degree will diminish the experience and opportunities of British students as well.

We mustn’t lose sight of this human perspective. I came to this country as an international student and am married to someone who went to Australia on the same basis. I know something of the bravery that is required to travel thousands of miles from your family to study overseas, embrace a new culture and make new friends.

The UK’s domestic students, businesses and, yes, universities benefit from the ability of international students to stay for a period after study to find work. And to make this possible, universities need to recruit these overseas students, presenting the UK as a welcoming place to study, find a community of friends and intellectual peers and conduct research. Restrictions that have already been introduced, including the right of postgraduate academics to bring family to the UK, have had an impact on this welcome — something that can be seen in the hard data of falling application numbers across the sector.

The damage is not irreparable, yet it is damage nonetheless. As the prime minister considers how to respond to the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee, I ask him to consider the clear position of public opinion and the weight of evidence behind the positive contribution that international students have made and could continue to make.

Should that contribution be curtailed, the loss would be all ours and the winners would be the many other countries keen to open their doors to those students who currently choose to come here.


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