Professor Jane Harrington is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Greenwich and Rehman Chishti MP is the Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham.
The recent news that net migration has hit a record high of 504,000 this year has unsurprisingly made the headlines.
However, reports that the Government may consider restrictions on international students, who accounted for 277,000 of the 504,000 figure, in an attempt to lower immigration numbers would be a hugely damaging policy for universities and the UK.
In Medway, the local authority for Rehman Chishti’s Gillingham and Rainham constituency, and where the University of Greenwich has a campus alongside three other universities, it is clear for all to see the huge benefits that international students provide.
According to recent research, there are 29,075 international students attending institutions in the Southeast. At the University of Greenwich, our international students are predominantly studying on a postgraduate course.
On our Medway campus, they tend to study engineering or pharmaceutical sciences with industrial practice, also supporting the skills needs of the local businesses.
International students in the UK bring substantial economic benefits and most certainly help levelling up. Former three Conservative universities ministers – David Willetts, Jo Johnson, and Chris Skidmore – have all spoken in support of them.
These students pay higher tuition fees, allowing universities to use that money on either courses that are more expensive to run, such as engineering, or invest it in our research and development capabilities, which benefits our own students and local communities.
To come to our country, they must pay an NHS Immigration Health Surcharge, and must have a certain amount of money in their bank account, ensuring that they can sustain themselves. These students rent and spend money in our local shops supporting our local economies.
These economic benefits are known to the Government; there has been a financial target set by them to grow education exports to £35 billion by 2030.
But it is not just economic benefits that international students bring to the UK. Having hundreds of thousands of people from across the world come to here to study and live greatly enhances Britain’s soft power and diplomatic ties, and brings cultural diversity to our communities. They also go back to their countries and become champions of our universities.
The Government, in its 2021 Integrated Review, noted the importance of soft power in this country’s foreign policy, going as far as to call the UK a “soft power superpower”, and in fact specifically mentions the large number of overseas students as one of the UK’s soft-power strengths.
The British Council and Higher Education Policy Institute have also noted the role that international students play in the UK’s soft power: just in 2021, 57 of the world leaders were educated in the UK.
We have local examples of such benefits too. The University of Greenwich’s international alumni include Sir Charles Kao, the Nobel Prize in Physics winner who is the father of fibre optics, helping to make all our internet connection faster. A more recent example is Shalmali Jadhav, an Indian student who came to study on our MBA International Business course, and who just this summer won the Diana Award for her social enterprise ‘Empathy for You.’
If we are aiming for a truly global Britain, international students represent a fantastic opportunity to build and maintain ties with countries around the globe and further increase the UK’s soft power, meaning improved diplomatic ties, greater trade, and enhanced security.
This has an impact locally too. For example, we have worked together in the past year to bring representatives from the Kuwait and Saudi Arabian embassies to visit the fantastic University of Greenwich Medway Campus and held fruitful talks on areas of potential education collaboration.
Importantly there is also public support for international students coming to the UK. Recent polling found that only 21 per cent would reduce international student numbers, while 42 per cent and 25 pe cent respectively would prefer numbers to stay the same or increase. Amongst Conservative voters only 29 per cent support reducing student migration.
This may partly be because the vast majority of the public do not see international students as immigrants, as after studying with us they tend to go back to their own countries.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged that “overall numbers will come down”, but it also rightly committed to an immigration system that will “attract the best and brightest from all over the world”. So even if international students were considered as immigrants, it would be exactly the type of immigration that the UK should be aiming to attract.
Our country has some of the best universities in the world, providing a brilliant education to UK and international students and contributing hugely to the local and national economy. To try to reduce immigration figures by targeting international students would not only damage the Government’s own levelling-up agenda, but also likely dampen economic growth locally and nationally, and weaken the UK’s soft power abroad.