The international student body is a crucial component part of university experience in the United Kingdom. Yet for various reasons according to BBC News education correspondent Sean Coughlan, more than half of overseas students in the UK say they have felt “less welcome”. Similarly the quantitative statistics point to a fairly gloomy outlook. According to the BBC, the number of overseas students taking up places at England’s universities decreased by 4,595 in one year – the first fall in 29 years. Yet is it sensible to measure quantitative statistics against that of individual student experiences?
Immigration policy in the United Kingdom has become a hotly contested debate, particularly in the wake of UKIP’s rise to prominence in the EU Parliament elections. Subsequently, we’ve seen a shift in Conservative and Labour stances on their own views and policies on immigration. For example the Express stated that senior Tory ministers are believed to be pushing for an “emergency brake” on immigration from Europe, which could see UK borders temporarily closed to halt a flood of migrants into the country. Similarly, Ed Miliband has promised an immigration reform bill in the first few weeks of a new Labour government as he challenged the “false promises” of UKIP and the Conservatives.
Has this politicised atmosphere concerned or put-off students from other countries applying to study and find a job in the UK? Has this fear led to the concern that the United Kingdom is under threat from ‘brain-drain’ where foreign students are dissatisfied with the potential and/or lack of opportunities return whence they came to find a job and apply their set of skills in their home country?
The first thing to assess is whether the numerous downbeat statistics are reliable or contradicted by other sources. The survey of attitudes of overseas students in the UK, commissioned by Regent’s University in London as supposed to Higher Education, shows a contrasting picture
“While students feel that migration targets have made them feel less welcome, they have a positive account of their experience in the UK. About four in five of the students backed the quality of their courses and teaching and nine in 10 would recommend studying in the UK.”
My experience as a UK student studying at the two highly diverse institutions of Nottingham University and King’s College London certainly counters the notion that the UK does not want to ‘welcome’ international students. In one of my seminars the class comprises of American, French, Venezuelan, Kenyan, German, Swiss, and Chinese students. The course encompasses students from all over the world and the amount you enjoy and learn from different perspectives, cultures, and experiences is rewarding at a personal level and career level.
Similarly my experience at Nottingham was very enriching due to the University having campuses based in Malaysia and China. Diversity is a crucial strategy to every university in attracting talent and boosting both its credentials and financial resources. On an individual and institutional level, (international students are believed to worth as much as £3bn a year to UK universities and £10 billion a year to the UK economy) international students are a crucial, if not essential, part of university life.
This is still being emphasised by top government officials. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for overseas students to be excluded from immigration figures stating:
“I actually agree with Michael Heseltine … I also think the student numbers should be taken out of the net immigration figures….tough where it needs to be tough, but smart where it needs to be smart….we don’t just send them packing back home when we might actually want them to find their feet and provide input into the British economy…students are really not what people perceive as immigrants”
Nick Clegg’s speech made in India was likely a response to the drop in the numbers of Indian and Pakistani students in the United Kingdom (18,535 in 2010-11 to 13,250 in 2011-12 and further to 10,235 in 2012/13 while these numbers in Pakistan stood at 4,580, in 2010-11 and 2,825 in 2012/13.) However, once again these statistics, though troubling from the BBC, overlook the fact that these are the only two countries which have seen a decline and should not encompass the whole international student body. The application figures for this year show rising rather than falling interest in UK universities. There have been drops from individual countries, but the overall figures from the admissions service UCAS, published last month; show that applications from overseas students are higher than last year. We also forget that we can flip the situation UK students may also have the same fears of not fitting into other cultures was , which was regarded as the greatest non-academic barrier to UK students studying overseas (the preference to study abroad dropped from 65% to 41%). Again from the numerous people (particularly language students) I have known who have gone abroad, I have rarely been given the impression of a negative experience from a range of countries be it the a year out in the United States, Canada, France or even Colombia!
Immigration is an issue and certainly statistics are important but it should not impact the value that international students still (and potentially will) bring to our economy and university experience, the latter contribution of which is nothing less than enriching.
In short I send this message to any international students considering studying here or graduates getting a job. We are here, we are waiting, come to the UK!