TIME after time, in the decades in which I travelled extensively
through Africa, I would come across influential figures -
government ministers, civil servants, even senior army officers -
who welcomed me with particular warmth on hearing that I had come
from England. It was where they had been to university.
The affection they had for their Alma Mater was often
deep-rooted. They had been in Britain for only a few years, but it
had been a formative part of their lives. They were more than
grateful for their education. Without exception, they had acquired
a knowledge, respect, and admiration for Britain, its institutions,
and its way of life. It was an affection that endured through the
years as they rose through the ranks back home to positions of
power, in which they remained for ever well-disposed to the country
that had helped to shape them.
So it was with some concern that I read recently that the number
of overseas students coming to British universities has dropped for
the first time in almost three decades. The number studying
science, technology, and maths has fallen by ten per cent since the
Coalition came to power. There has been a 26-per-cent drop in
postgraduates from India alone.
The explanation is, in part, cost. Tuition fees trebled to £9000
a year in 2012, thanks to the broken election promise of the
Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.But university leaders say that
the bigger problem isthe macho immigration restrictions introduced
by a Conservative Party discomfited by UKIP constantly snapping at
Tory heels with its anti-foreigner rhetoric.
The Conservatives' aim of cutting net migration by a target of
100,000 was misconceived as well as arbitrary. The ire of UKIP and
the Tory Right is primarily directed at Romanians and other Eastern
Europeans who, in the specious mantra, are "coming over here and
pinching our jobs". (Immigration is, in fact, good for society and
our economy.) Under EU rules, of course, citizens of member states
cannot be kept out, so the Conservatives, to balance the numbers,
are keeping out students from elsewhere.
Among the techniques deployed to demonstrate Tory toughness has
been the abolition of the previous visa system, which allowed
overseas students to stay and work for two years after their
course. Much has been made of the idea of "bogus students", who
pretend to come here to study, but who really want to work
Additional language- and attendance-checks have been introduced.
These play well in the popular press, but the reality is that the
number of bogus studentsis relatively small. Far greater are the
numbers of foreigners who read all this as a signal that they are
not welcome here. They are enrolling in the United States, Canada,
and Australia, instead.
All this is bad for British universities. Overseas fees were an
important part of their budgeted income - last year, these reached
a combined total of £73 billion - which is 2.8 per cent of our
total national income. The result will almost certainly be yet
higher fees for domestic undergraduates.
So clamping down on foreign students is bad all round - bad for
the universities, for the economy, for our own students, and for
future trade, tourism, inward investment, and diplomatic and
cultural influence on the international stage.
All that has been traded for a short salvo of cheers from the
populist press. And it will almost certainly not save the
Conservative Party from a drubbing by UKIP in the local and
European elections next month. When it comes to short-term myopia
in politics, it is hard to think of a worse example than this.