26 August 2017

Theresa May must change her mind on foreign students


Earlier this year, I got talking to a Canadian diplomat. She was very keen on Brexit – or at least on one particular aspect of it. European students, who had been coming to British universities in their thousands, were suddenly feeling distinctly unloved. And Canada was only too happy to welcome them. Applications, she said, were up 40 per cent already.

Higher education is one of Britain’s most impressive industries. We attract bright people from around the world, who pay oodles of cash to learn here. They then either return home, thinking fondly of Britain, or stay to contribute to our economy. Survey after survey shows that the British public are entirely happy with this.

The one person who isn’t happy is Theresa May. Ever since becoming Home Secretary, she has seen international students as a problem rather than an opportunity. “The most significant migrant route to Britain is the student route,” she warned back in 2011, announcing new curbs that would slash the numbers arriving here.

It is thanks to Mrs May that students are – to the despair of the overwhelming majority of her Cabinet colleagues, not least Boris Johnson – still included in the migration figures. And it is thanks primarily to Mrs May that the number of foreign students has fallen sharply since 2010. Brexit has accelerated the trend, yes – but so, according to my Canadian acquaintance, did Mrs May’s blood-and-thunder party conference speech, which focused on the need for immigration control.

One of the reasons the Brexit vote was met with such incredulity in Europe was that we appeared to be cutting off our nose to spite our face. Having established ourselves as the financial capital of Europe, we were suddenly offering our humbled competitors a way back into the game. Likewise for all the other successful industries that depended on selling into the European market, or the seamless movement of parts and labour across borders.

Brexit, in other words, raises the stakes. There may well be a glorious free-trading future out there, but it is one we have to fight for. And the best way of doing that is to identify the things we are good at – that we lead the world on – and do everything we can to build on those strengths. To make sure Britain is the place you come to for the most creative advertising, the most disruptive fintech, the most innovation-friendly regulations on drug development, and so on.

This principle applies, in spades, to higher education. Here is not just a great earner for Britain, but the perfect way to attract the talent our economy needs. Yet we seem strangely determined to sabotage our own success.

Yes, there may have been many who were abusing the rules. But the heavy-handed nature of Mrs May’s policies, and the frankly graceless way in which she talks about the issue, have created a self-inflicted economic wound at a time when we can least afford it.

Fortunately, there is a way to fix at least some of the damage. This week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that its earlier figures for students overstaying their visas – which put the figure in the tens or even hundreds of thousands – were grossly exaggerated. Exit checks at the borders have shown that overstayers are in fact a tiny fraction of the total. This had long been suspected by the rest of Whitehall, but to the fury of other departments, the Home Office insisted on sticking to its numbers (reportedly even after the problems with its figures became apparent internally).

Now, however, the facts have changed – so Mrs May must change her mind. Not just by taking students out of the migrant figures, but by making as public a statement as possible that the Government she leads sees foreign students as an invaluable asset to Britain (and pointing out that the rock-bottom pound makes it wonderfully attractive to come here). Otherwise, it’s not just the Canadians who will be stealing our students – and our future growth.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX