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Shunning foreign students

17 April 2014

Other countries will reap the rewards of an arbitrary policy, says Paul Vallely

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 illegally.

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.

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