Citizens of nowhere? It's time we recognised the vital contribution made by EU students

Rebecca Hughes
A European Union flag in front of Big Ben. - PA Wire

The world has never needed leadership more than it does today in the areas that protect everyone’s future.  

Within this, there is a powerful role for international student flows, whether inward to the UK or outward. The young people who choose to study in the UK support short term economic gain - £25 billion in gross output in the UK, according to recent research.  

They also help us grow powerful long-term networks of influence when they return to their home countries. These are valuable ties that support long term trade and security through greater trust and understanding of how the UK thinks and does business.  

Overall, the UK has recently been losing market share against very active competitor nations and the EU referendum has caused an immediate drop off in students choosing the UK.  

Despite the headline figures showing economic benefits, it is worth remembering that student choices are made with a long lead-in time – up to two years - and so we are potentially at a tipping point.  

FAQ | Brexit, students and universities

Many students across Europe in current intakes will have made their choice to apply to a UK University before the referendum on EU membership in June 2016.  

For the next year’s intake, parents and students will be refining their options around about now. The bulk of the impact of our choice to leave the European Union on student numbers has not been felt yet.  

I’m not a betting person but let’s say a 20 per cent reduction next year and a trajectory overall similar to the rapid (30 per cent in one year) decline of the numbers from India when we sent out messages of a closed Britain.  

I hope I’m wrong.  

Students at a university graduation ceremony. - Credit: PA Wire

Why does a potential drop off to the flow of European students trouble me so much?  

It relates to two areas of muddled thinking I’m witnessing about international student numbers versus home-grown talent.

The first area of debate suggests that places in UK universities for "home" students are under threat from massive international student influxes. David Goodhart of Policy Exchange has argued that it’s high time universities turned their focus from international students to UK students.  

Alongside the assumption that international students displace UK students, the local/international student choice is presented in terms of promoting and sharing UK cultural values and knowledge across the generations.

Universities are seen as bastions of UK culture, skills and knowledge (which they are) but the notion that should only be shared with "our own" young is crazy for many reasons. Education is not that kind of zero sum game and the evidence for displacement is weak.

Top 100 world universities

In a different part of the forest, Brexiteers and some parts of government have said not to worry about EU mobility - we can easily reach out for students to the wider world.  

In this argument, UK universities can simply mine the globe for talent to top up the numbers that might not want to come from places closer to home as we detach ourselves from the European Union. To do this, however, we need to signal welcome, mutual interest, and attractiveness – three pillars of soft power.

The overall percentage of UK students studying in lecture halls up and down the land is never going to be outweighed by their non-UK counterparts. Indeed, some courses, and even universities, will have to close if they cannot attract a sensible proportion of international fee paying students.  

At a globally recognised  ‘research intensive’ institution such as a Russell Group university, the proportion of undergraduate ‘home’ to EU and International students stands below 20 per cent.  

Across the board in all UK universities totals at undergraduate level are generally even more in favour of home-grown talent - you tend to see around 14 per cent non-UK students. 

Changes to fee levels for UK students so that they are closer to international students these days have been one factor that has moderated the dependency on international fee income, but the other is simply demand.  Most undergraduate students, given the choice, prefer to study closer to home rather than get on a plane, full stop.

It is a fantasy to suggest that universities have been giving places to international students over home students. The figures don’t stack-up. The push factors are not there, and the incentives are, if anything, nowadays more in favour of home students.  

Students wearing mortar boards and gowns after graduating.  - Credit: PA 

This is why it’s so important for us to maintain efforts to attract well-prepared and talented young people to these shores through the UK Government and British Council backed ‘StudyUK: Discover You’ scheme.  

Without these efforts, I genuinely think we will see some institutions in towns and smaller cities decline and fail beyond the hyper attractive London and the South East region. If they close, they will take with them significant numbers of local jobs and other well rehearsed economic benefits.

In terms of the second argument, the one that says that we can top up the numbers with students from far away, this is of course true and something that British Council works hard to support. But we also know through this work that it’s a big competitive world out there.

Students and those privileged enough to be able to study overseas have never had more choice.

Canada offers whole family visas and encourages students to base their lifelong careers in that country.  

New players such as Dutch universities are teaching degrees in English. Their government is offering incentives for the talent they have spent time teaching to become tax paying, employment generating professionals and entrepreneurs through their ‘Make it in the Netherlands’ campaign.  

The Chinese are setting themselves challenging targets to attract international students and have recently created a post-study work visa scheme to support this effort.  

Unis

We need to signal to the world at large that we have not lost the plot on international students. Rather than general statements about British values and looking after our own, we need to articulate more clearly what these values actually are and why we want to share them with others.  

This is why working hard to prevent that trickle of lost students from Europe from turning into a river is so important. These are students from countries both physically and culturally close to us.

The values that underpin the things I love about the UK are also part of what makes universities hugely valuable to society overall.  Resilient and innovative though we are, we mustn’t sleep walk into perverse educational isolationism hoping that everything will turn out for the best.  

If we turn inward and propose to give the fruits of our education system, way of thinking and culture only to those we think are already like us then, for sure, we send out a signal of a diminished rather than a Global Britain. And we send these signals to the very people who want to come here for a period of their lives to continue to help us innovate, renew and expand our networks of influence creating greater prosperity and stability. Crazy, eh?

 

Professor Rebecca Hughes is the Director of Education at the British Council. She also holds an honorary Chair in applied linguistics with the University of Nottingham. 

 

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