Immigration is a deeply emotive subject, one that drives extraordinary political activity, not least Brexit.
It came as little surprise, therefore, that last week’s net migration figures prompted a flurry of claims and counter-claims about just why the numbers have got so high. In particular, attention focused on the vast numbers of visas being issued to foreign nationals and their families. Indeed, once you remove Ukrainians and Hong Kong Chinese from the numbers – and voters overwhelmingly support welcoming these groups – overseas students are by far the dominant group.
And so, predictably, the Government reacted by announcing that they would withdraw the right of families and dependents of foreign MA students to claim temporary residency. This would, we were told, not only drive down annual numbers but would also ensure that many fewer immigrants would take advantage of the university route as a way of getting to the UK and staying.
Universities were put out, pleading both publicly and privately that making such a move would damage the way HE institutions fund themselves (using the much higher fees paid by overseas nationals to subsidise domestic places) and hamper their ability to recruit the brightest and the best from around the world. Britain would, we were told, fall further behind in the race for intellectual talent. A number of Conservative voices had a pop at the HE sector. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former No 10 chief of staff, was chief among them.
Underlying much of this debate is an assumption, shared by both sides, that voters probably don’t really like seeing their local universities over-run with foreigners. Even the HE sector’s defensive positions don’t really present the positive case for the value of cosmopolitan campuses. In so doing (or not doing), they give critics like Timothy a free hit.
But I’m not so sure the public takes as dim a view of international students as some of the commentariat might suggest.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years talking in focus groups to everyday people in everyday towns about the value of their local university. In doing so, I’ve drawn many firm conclusions about the way that universities are perceived, both negative and positive. Interestingly, however, the increase in international student numbers is not one of the issues that provokes particular hostility. I’ve asked about it many times, and the topic often comes up unprompted, but rarely is it discussed negatively.
If anything, the weight of public opinion in university towns and small cities is broadly sympathetic to international students, and that includes non-graduates in so-called Red Wall seats. If anything, most local people seem to welcome the cosmopolitan flavour lent to their town centres. Many times, participants in focus groups have spoken to me about how their town ‘welcomes students from all over the world’ – and talked positively about how it has made the place where they live more interesting.
To be clear, that is not a universal response – there will always be those who don’t like it – but it is the general view.
The positive response to international students is in line with the remarkable absence of racism in the British population. Survey after survey shows that people in this country are among the most welcoming around when it comes to race – or to put it more bluntly, the colour of the family that lives next door.
So it feels like there’s an open goal for universities to make a stronger, more positive case for recruiting foreign students.
But before they do, they must be careful of a few things.
Firstly, they must be sure that local people don’t feel foreign students are taking places that would otherwise have gone to their own children or grandchildren. So far, that idea does not appear to have taken hold, but institutions must be careful that it doesn’t.
Secondly, they must be alive to the idea that overseas students take their place at university and then simply disappear into the workforce and never go home.
Finally, universities must be careful to ensure that in prosecuting a positive case for foreign students that they draw a link with areas of pubic policy that voters care about, such as the NHS. Non-graduate residents are unlikely to take issue with their local university recruiting, say, the nurses who will help keep the local hospital on its feet.
If these three areas can be safely navigated, universities can start winning the argument over the value of overseas students. Contrary to what some politicians seem to think, the case is there to be won.
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