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The importance of international students

Thursday 25 August 2016 International Students

Following the news that Theresa May is set to further scrutinise student Visas in an effort to reduce immigration, recent University of Leeds grad Dominic Celica takes a look at the contribution international students make to the UK.

The Status Quo

The UK is suffering from a stuttering economy, producing no real signs of growth and no increases in real income. With only 28 per cent of graduates from the class of £9,000-a-year eligible to start paying back their student loan and with 25 per cent of graduates from the class of 2004 still earning around £20,000 ten years on, there is a huge debt time bomb just waiting to go off.

How this debt will be paid off remains a prime concern for the government. They have already caused controversy by retrospectively freezing the repayment threshold (when really it should rise in line with inflation as promised); as well as proposing further increases to tuition fees to ensure ‘better consumer value’.

The rather ironic solution to the debt deficit and skills gap in the UK is the very thing that the Conservative government are looking at reducing: International Students.

International Students to the Rescue

Bringing in well over £9.3 billion to the economy, with £4.9 billion being spent off campus, the value of international students is colossal.

Accounting for one eighth (12.5 per cent) of our universities’ total funding, without their fees our universities would be far worse off. Non-EU students typically pay double their UK counterparts and don’t have the luxury of staying at home to save costs on accommodation either.

Their value to UK universities goes well beyond the significant financial return they deliver. They bring skills, ability and investment which are the lifeblood of our world-renowned institutions.

They supply supreme research capacity, a wealth of ideas and innovative solutions that are fundamental to enhancing the learning experience and ensuring others can enjoy a stimulating multicultural academic environment.

Many of these students also possess qualifications in areas where there are well-known skills gaps: such as in the sciences and engineering. They support our institutions, impart their knowledge within their industry and their experience strengthens the UK’s influence and competiveness across the globe.

They fill almost 380,000 jobs, create global networks for UK businesses and account for 40 per cent of all postgraduate students. Quite simply, without their input, our universities are worth far less.

UK No Longer Appealing

However, the appeal of studying in the UK has reduced significantly in the past few years and this decline looks set to continue alongside the uncertain economic and social landscape that surrounds Brexit.

In April 2014, a study from the Government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) found that the number of foreign students being recruited to English universities had dropped for the first time in around 30 years.

These worrying statistics can be seen as a direct consequence of the UK’s immigration policies that view foreign students studying in the UK as a part of the government’s net migration targets. Leading academic Professor Colin Bailey has warned that the UK is at risk of losing “talented people to competitor economies” unless strategies circulating around this policy are revised and international students were excluded from the same bracket.

This restriction in movement constrains the level of transfers coming in and out of the country, and it has been reported that since 2011 the laws in place have cost the UK almost £8 billion according to one study. These numbers are not only significant for the strengthening of the economy, but also for a thriving and diverse culture within a city.

International Opinion Post Brexit

Lithuanian Start-up TransferGo recently investigated the aftermath of Brexit and how it has affected the mind-set of international students. They interviewed two international students from the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield and asked them how they felt about recent events.

Dipansh Aggarwal, President of the Indian Society at the University of Manchester, believes that the referendum result will make potential students think twice, following the backdrop of racist incidents and rising community tensions. He adds that, “If stringent immigration laws are introduced, it will further fuel the people to search for alternatives to UK universities”.

In speaking about the value international students bring to the UK, he highlights that as a student of Chemical Engineering, most of his peers are from overseas and that the local businesses, restaurants, shops and societies all benefit from the vibrant and energetic international community.

Dipansh’s thoughts are echoed by Ade of the Nigerian Society Sheffield. He believes that there’s a richness associated with cities largely populated with international students, especially if the students are given a channel to exhibit their cultures.

Unlike Dipansh, he sees ‘Brexit’ as a potential opportunity: “At first glance, it may seem that it will become harder for international students, but thinking deeper, Brexit might actually make it easier because immigration pressure is relieved on the eastern border of the U.K, allowing a bit more relaxed requirements for studying in the UK.”

Future Outlook

The future of UK universities remains in the balance. With a huge debt time bomb just waiting to go off, the government needs to get a grip on the situation regarding student loans fast. It has been argued here that international students represent the solution to both this crisis and the skills and employment gap in the UK.

Contributing massively both to universities and the country as a whole, reducing the number of international students to placate voter concerns over immigration is not the right thing to do. It therefore comes as no surprise that following the dip in international students applying to study in British institutions, our universities are beginning to fall down in the world rankings.    

Want to show solidarity with international students and staff? Check out our national demo United for Education on 19 November.