Today the Telegraph splashed on the news that over 60 university chancellors have written to David Cameron warning of the detrimental impact the immigration rules for international students is having on our HE sector.
It was a timely intervention. In recent weeks Cameron loyalists such as Nick Boles and Jo Johnson have criticised he policy. Indeed Johnson’s intervention is especially remarkable considering he is a PPS in the same government department as the Universities Minister David Willetts. Last week Charles Kennedy was the latest coalition MP to join Labour MPs such as myself in urging ministers to change track.
It’s the latest twist and turn in what has become a car crash area of policy for the Tories and Lib Dems. So far we’ve had the Liberal Democrats’ great betrayal over the trebling of tuition fees, a few weeks ago the the failure to include a HE Bill in the recent Queen’s Speech causing instability and confusion for the sector and now this.
Our HE sector represents our 7th biggest export with 400 000 students coming to the UK every year to study. Estimates suggest the sector is worth around £15 billion a year. What’s more the influx of international students to towns and cities not only contribute hugely to the local economy they also enrich the our international links, as the IPPR’s ever thoughtful Nick Pearce observed ‘they take friendships and loyalties home with them that later become trade links, cultural bonds and diplomatic ties’.
I know from the experience of my own Leicester constituency of the hugely positive contribution locally international students make. I’m lucky to have two of the nation’s most exciting dynamic universities in my patch – De Montfort and Leicester – both of whom work hard to attract international students. Restricting international students will put more pressure on theirs and other Universities’ finances.
The IPPR recently identified that international students make up the largest chunk of immigrants in the net migration figures and yet students are not long term at all. They are in fact more likely to return home than other immigration categories. By including international students in these calculations the IPPR estimate we would be forced to cut international student numbers by 50 000 with a cost to the UK economy of up to £3 billion a year.
Given George Osborne is failing to put in place measures to boost growth it would seem this is one area that he would be well advised to do one of his regular u-turns on. Export earnings from our HE sector could double by 2025 and yet by including temporary international students in our permanent immigration totals ministers are seriously disadvantaging the UK’s universities and colleges. Universities UK today reminded ministers that global competition for students is already intense. Its will become more intense in the years ahead. Australia, Canada and the US don’t include international students in their permanent immigration figures while we are sending a discouraging signal across the world at exactly the time we can’t afford to do so.
Earlier this week Cameron’s PPS was caught out telling Tory MPs what to ask at PMQs. His missive insisted they raise local examples of ‘export success/expansion’. The usual ambitious ones dutifully followed his orders but by hampering our HE sector at a time when it should be a growing export success story, Tory MPs ought not to be so hubristic.
Jon Ashworth is the Labour MP for Leicester South