Why it’s always time to speak up for international students

Students talking outside Teesside campus

Ten years ago I sat in a pub in Sheffield with international students. The mood was grim.

All around a growing debate about immigration was catching international students in its wake. Our precious global community of talent and diverse perspectives felt under attack. Stereotypes we didn’t recognise. We decided to push back.

And we weren’t alone. The whole sector came together - universities large and small, ancient and modern, comprehensive urban institutions and specialist providers - to speak with one voice. Students and faculty. Local businesses and national bodies. A statement about who we were and what was worth defending - #WeAreInternational.

But we quickly realised it wasn’t enough to celebrate and talk about the benefits. We needed to stand up to policy debates and the ethos that underpinned them. So when Teresa May said, "If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere…” we answered with the evidence. International students were and are deeply involved in their communities for good, and home students felt their education and lives enriched by connections with peers from around the world.

Gathering that evidence became a bigger project. The Higher Education Policy Institute and Universities U.K. International reports into the economic impact of international students and graduates made clear every constituency in the country benefitted. Want to level up? Welcome this inward investment of talent, skills, passion and global connection.

The All Party Parliamentary Group ably chaired by our local MP Paul Blomfield and a third generation Indian student and business leader Lord Karan Bilimoria compiled the evidence. We came together. I personally gave evidence in Parliament with our regional mayor Dan Jarvis. London Higher mobilised partners in the capital. The Chamber of Commerce and CBI backed the call for the reinstatement of post study work, the removal of which had deeply harmed recruitment and damaged the UK’s reputation for welcome. And we all rejoiced together when that was restored.

Only the global tensions around immigration and the place of international education within that - which are certainly not unique to the U.K. - require ongoing vigilance.

I used to think my favourite measure of success for the #WeAreInternational campaign would be to shut it down because it was no longer needed. It would be so obvious that our international education communities of talent were a precious resource not only to the U.K. but the world that it would be unnecessary to say anything other than thank you.

Now I know different. Once again the effort to reduce immigration is a huge driver of policy in British politics and we are again seeing an impact on international student policy and policy on the early career researchers who drive the reputation of our country for knowledge creation. Not to mention the development of a life-saving vaccine in the Jenner Labs in Oxford, or the staffing of groups working on cancer, antimicrobial resistance, superconductors and green energy.

As well as offering a pipeline of talent, international fees cross subsidise U.K. research £1 in every 4. They underpin all teaching. A reduction in public funding has meant international students are the unseen funders of British higher education.

So now it is time again to draw together our allies, people of goodwill who know just how important international students are to the U.K. and who are committed to making this country famous for its outstanding universities and sincere welcome. Now that also includes the voices of students themselves - the magnificent UKCISA #WeAreInternational ambassadors and NISAU to name just two forces to be reckoned with.

Government does not speak with one voice on this issue, and in the end politicians have a duty to work in our interests. And we have a duty to remind them of what those are.

Responsible providers of international education are absolutely committed to visa compliance and go to significant efforts to ensure this is understood and enforced. But we don’t want to lose what is important. There are many who want to preserve what international students bring and to make the U.K. the best country in the world to study. This week’s announcements are a sharp reminder that we need to come together to make that case.

This article first appeared here in The PIE News.