If the UK wants to remain a key global player after Brexit, the intake of foreign students must be protected

Dave Wheeler
Foreign students provide a valuable boost to local businesses: iStockphoto

In the wake of last month’s triggering of Article 50, the tumultuous prospect of a hard Brexit has been widely speculated on. Sources say the economy has fared surprisingly well since the referendum, with growth both in the manufacturing and service sectors. But evidence suggests its effects have already begun to hit higher education, as studying in the UK seems to look less appealing to EU applicants.

Figures from UCAS show a six per cent drop in applicants from within the EU since last year. It’s notable that these figures rose steadily in the years leading up to March 2016; shortly after ex-PM David Cameron announced the referendum date.

Concerned by this, General Secretary of the University and College Union Sally Hunt said: “This is dangerous news for our universities who need to be able to let EU students know what they can expect if they apply to study in Britain.”

“The government needs to act now and send a strong message guaranteeing the conditions for EU students thinking about coming to a UK university, and status of the hardworking staff already here,” she said.

Having studied alongside many internationals myself – from both in and outside the EU – it saddens me how there might already be some negative sentiment deterring them from furthering their education here. The opportunity to mix and learn with a diverse range of nationalities was what inspired me to find employment abroad, which only helped develop my career further.

Wishing to see the perspective from a foreign student, I spoke to 26-year-old Matteo from Italy, who has come to study at City University in London. He’s concerned new rules in the future will put off European students from coming here.

“Going to study in another country usually means a long application process,” he said.

“People who are not ready will be more likely to apply to other countries in the EU, which is cheaper.”

This last point about cost is worth noting. The value of the pound slid as a direct response to the vote to leave, leading to an overall rise in inflation. Ashamedly this means student debts in the UK will increase further as the interest rates on their loans increase.

It’s no wonder then that the desire to study in the UK has been soured. But if this decline in European numbers is allowed to continue, what will it mean for the UK exactly? While it could result in a reduction in net migration figures – something that might please many leave voters despite the strong argument that international students should not be treated as immigrants – there is something more significant to be addressed.

New research by Oxford Economics found that international students coming to the UK generate more than £25m for the economy, as well as providing a boost to regional jobs and local businesses. Their off-campus spending alone – not including their often-higher tuition fees – amounts to over a £5bn boost to industries such as transport and retail. The benefits of this aren’t limited to London or other major hubs either – over 3,500 jobs were generated in the Yorkshire and Humber region, for example, from international student spending.

This annual injection of revenue is precisely what the UK should welcome. While the speculative outcome of post-Brexit trade deals continues in its debate – with Chancellor Phillip Hammond saying in December that a smooth transitional deal would likely take up to four years rather than two – the country is at risk of failing to address and protect its most valuable financial lifelines.

And this is indeed a lifeline that exceeds beyond its financial benefits. An ideal way to keep the UK relevant and attractive to Europe and the wider world – by continuing to invite and nurture foreign talent, and enable them to spend money in our country. It can debunk the continuing accusations of isolationism from the global community, and is a unique selling point certainly worth protecting if we are to continue drawing the world’s brightest and best.

But let’s not forget our own nationals as we fight to prevent such reclusive sentiment. With the hotly controversial freedom of movement rules thrown in, who is to say tomorrow’s generation will lack the virtue to explore other cultures and develop their own sense of perspective and independence in the world? With the likelihood of such liberty closing once Britain pulls out, it’s up to our universities and their inclusive environment to encourage this air of intercultural communication.

Sally Hunt is right how the government should act now to protect such a cultural and economic boon. The impressionability of youth is something never to be underestimated – it’s a butterfly effect that the next government post-election should prioritise if they wish to remain a key global player in years to come.

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