One of the key features of higher education across the developed world in recent years has been the growth of student migration. Students have increasingly been encouraged to consider universities in other countries when making their study choices, and this has led to a very significant internationalisation of higher education. Some countries – and the United States of America in particular – have a long record of attracting overseas students, many of whom then stayed and contributed to innovation and economic growth. And while it may not have been something that was always stressed as part of the reason for international student recruitment, host countries tended to benefit significantly from the tuition fees paid by these students.
But in Britain at any rate, is this about to come to an end? Over the past while UK visa regulations have placed increasing burdens both on overseas students coming into the country and on the universities in which they wish to study. It is a highly bureaucratic and intrusive framework, and it has been seen in many countries from which students have been recruited as indicating that foreign students are no longer welcome in Britain. And now, this has been reinforced by some political messages. British Immigration Minister Damian Green, describing as ‘beneficial’ a drop of 11 per cent in student visas, recently said the following in a speech:
‘Of course international students bring economic and wider benefits. But … there is scope for further examination of whether and to what extent foreign student tuition fees boost the UK economy and crucially how UK residents ultimately benefit from that. We need a better understanding of the economic and social costs and benefits of student migration: from the point of view of the wider UK economy, the education sector itself and the students themselves. There needs to be a focus on quality rather than quantity. The principle of selectivity should apply to student migration just as it does to work migration.’
The Minister is therefore suggesting that attracting overseas students, even very good ones, is not necessarily positive, and he voices doubts about the economic impact or benefit of their fees. He also shows no awareness of or sympathy for the wider principle of an international dimension to higher education.
In many countries, and in Britain in particular, debates about immigration quickly turn into unpleasant discussions in which gut suspicions, sometimes mixed at least a little with xenophobia, distort rational decision-making. The current trend of UK policies on immigration is bizarre, and is undermining the global reputation of British higher education. There are traces of this also in other countries. None of this makes sense, and it undermines the ethos of higher education. Politicians need to think again, urgently.