Theresa May’s hostility to international students hurts Britain’s economy and society, writes Diane Abbott.
This week saw Theresa May become even more isolated both in government and in broader society over the question of retaining international students in immigration statistics. It followed much coverage of a report this week from the Higher Education Policy Institute on how much international students contribute to the economy.
The report highlighted that international students are worth £20bn to the British economy, pointing out that in addition to money going directly on tuition fees, the spending of international students has become a major factor in supporting local economies across Britain.
Currently, around 230,000 students arrive for university courses each year, mostly postgraduates, and the report shows that international students bring economic benefits that are worth 10 times the costs of hosting them.
The report argues that “almost every part” of the British economy benefits from international students. London alone gains £4.6bn but it is not just the capital that benefits, with Sheffield the biggest beneficiary in proportion to its economy. The study showed that in relative terms, smaller cities, with more than one university, can see a greater impact.
The analysis calculated the financial contribution of international students, such as on fees and living expenses, and balanced that against costs, including the extra pressure on local services and non-repayment of loans. This is an important piece of analysis as those who argue that Britain should have a non-welcoming approach to international students often point to the latter costs to justify their position and because, in the past, advocates of the government’s current approach have not accepted figures on the benefits to Britain on the grounds that they ignore the costs
Labour welcomed the study and believes it is time for a more positive approach to international students – in contrast, the current Tory approach is damaging Britain in this area.
India’s Hindustan Times , to give just one example cited in the report, recently argued that Britain had many top universities, “but they also offer the most student-hostile government in the world.” Instead, we should be trying as hard as possible to make Britain as attractive a place as possible for international students, especially considering the challenges our higher education sector and economy face due to the Brexit process.
To put it simply, international students enrich us all, and reducing their numbers makes us poorer.
As well as receiving the no small sum of over £300 pounds a year for every British resident from international students, there are also all sorts of cultural benefits from welcoming international students.
International students enrich us socially and culturally. Some of them also ask to stay on, and make an important contribution to our living standards. The NHS is just one sector which would collapse without the contribution of overseas students who come here to study and then stay on to work.
The government should look to welcome international students to further build on both these cultural and economic benefits as, without them, many areas around the country could see job losses and other economic difficulties – but instead their approach suggests they see international students as a drain on the economy and society.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, rightly argued that the figures support calls to remove students from immigration targets – calls which have been supported by Labour, many Tories, key components of the higher education sector and many others in recent months.
Poignantly, he added that “trying to persuade the Home Office that international students nearly always benefit Britain can feel like banging one’s head against a brick wall.”
Last year Amber Rudd, the home secretary, asked her independent advisors on immigration to review the costs and benefits of overseas students. In September the migration advisory committee (MAC) is expected to release findings on the role international students play in local economic growth and their impact on the provision and quality of education for students from Britain.
As home secretary and then prime minister Theresa May has been a vocal advocate of including international students in the official data, and many have long argued that this has been guided politically by wanting to be seen as anti-immigration rather than guided by what is best for Britain.
Indeed, it was repeatedly argued that there were large numbers of international students who overstayed their visas and so contributed to the breach of their immigration target, but the evidence showed both these claims to be false.
In reality, mounting evidence – including this week’s report – shows that the policy of including international students in the total immigration data, and then subjecting them to the same irrational net migration target, is completely counter-productive.
This week, the prime minister is even more isolated on this issue, yet she stubbornly refuses to change her policy of including international students in the Tories’ net migration target. She is too weak to accept she is in the wrong, but the time has come for a change of approach.