During her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May made no secret of the fact that she opposed the current visa system that often means overseas students, in her eyes, “overstay their welcome” after graduating. In a post-Brexit climate, May’s endeavours to further her “visa crackdown” sends an intensely negative message to international students, many of whom see British universities as a place where their talents can flourish. Worryingly, it also does nothing to oppose the idea that Britain is becoming increasingly hostile to internationalism and multiculturalism within our society.
At this year’s Tory conference, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced the introduction of a two-tier visa system for international students applying to some British universities. In short, students applying to “poorer” universities to study “poorer” courses will have different rights in terms of their visa status post-graduation. Declaring that only those attending a Russell Group university are welcome to join Britain’s educational community fails to send a message of warmth to international students during these uncertain times; it will also unfairly deprive non-Russell Group universities of the wealth of talent brought by international students. For centuries Britain has been known for its wonderful universities and the rich learning experience they offer – May’s unjust “crackdown” risks this reputation.
Rudd’s justification for these reforms is that they will provide “value for our economy.” The extreme, and almost laughable, irony in this claim is that recent studies show that international students bring £8 billion to the UK economy every year. A study by the University of Sheffield shows that international students contribute around £120.3 million within their city alone, an enormous addition to a regional economy. Even studies by the now defunct Department for Business, Innovation and Skills showed that further restrictions on student visas will have a detrimental effect on the economy. It is abundantly clear that the UK is already getting “value for our economy” in allowing international students to study here and potentially remain afterwards.
With the financial fears Brexit has already brought to the UK, and the dwindling value of the pound, this decision to curb numbers of international students couldn’t come at a worse time. Despite this, in a letter to ministers, May stated that universities should “develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students.” This yet again highlights her inadequacy as Prime Minister as, if universities are no longer able to rely on EU funding for research - one of the main sources of funding for most universities - it leaves them in a very difficult situation. May believes, however, that universities should be forbidden from allowing international students to enrol on “Mickey Mouse” courses at university, her plan is to thwart their chances of extending their visas post graduation, and using the university system as a “gateway to gaining entrance” to the UK.
The Prime Minister forgets that it is not international students who are the source of Britain’s “immigration problem”. After all, it is difficult to see how, if an international student is willing to pay tens of thousands of pounds to come to a British university, they could be described as a drain on the system. In fact, many international students use their degrees to gain credible jobs and make their expensive degree worthwhile, further contributing to the British economy. If May is serious in her re-evaluation of British immigration, she urgently needs to remove international students from the debate.
In discussing this issue in monetary terms, both May and Rudd crudely ignore the important ways international students contribute to our already diverse country. The Latin origins of the word university – universitas – translate to “a society.” This epitomises the purpose of a university: to bring together people of varying social backgrounds, fusing an array of cultures and creating a community characterised by diversity. In this post-Brexit time of change, this should be a chance to show the world that Britain still cares about international students and what they bring to our universities. Instead, Rudd and May have chosen to propagate the dangerous “British jobs for British workers” rhetoric. If the government persists with these ill-informed changes, they will go against the proud origins of our universities and shift towards a climate of hostility and isolation, whilst the rest of the world embraces the beauty that is internationalism.