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The UK must not lose its position as a leading place to study

Lord Karan Bilimoria
Lord Karan Bilimoria

OUR universities are the jewel in the British crown. They generate vital research into science, medicine, engineering and other areas that boost our economic productivity and they are where around one in ten of the world’s leaders, and heads of state spend their formative years.

The leading international talent our universities attract plays a vital role in upholding the UK’s position as one of the top places in the world to study.

Yet these future pioneers hoping to study and thrive in the UK have become an unfair target for the negative rhetoric on immigration that Theresa May’s approach to Brexit has been sending out. It is shocking that barely a week after parliament went into summer recess last month, the UK Offices for Statistic Regulation quietly issued a report saying that we cannot rely on the immigration statistics on international students, which have to be termed “experimental”, as they are based on international passenger survey figures and are deemed to be completely unreliable. The government chose to release the report during recess when it would not receive proper scrutiny from MPs and Lords. These statistics are not simply misleading, they are so inaccurate that they would be laughable if it were not so serious.

New research commissioned by the Home Office has now proven how unfounded May’s stance is, casting doubts over UK immigration statistics with her estimated and incorrect exit checks.

The recent revelation of the true impact of international students on our country has gauged that only 4,600 international students overstayed their visas last year, overturning previous estimates that the number was closer to 100,000. This gross exaggeration of figures is an outrage.

I am proud to be Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, where UCAS figures have shown the exact opposite – we have seen a phenomenal rise in students, both international and domestic, between 2006 and 2016. During that period, our international student numbers – EU and non-EU – rose from 640 to 945 while domestic students rose from 4,625 to 5,455. The unrelenting campaign to malign and undervalue the contribution these international students make to our society is unacceptable. I frankly find the prime minister and home secretary’s approach utterly negligent.

We must never doubt that UK universities continue to attract the most talented students in the world. Research this week by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that UK-educated heads of state and government outnumber those educated in any other nation including the USA. To this day, one UK university, the University of Cambridge, has been awarded more Nobel Prizes than any other university in the world, just short of 100.

This is all despite the fact that, in the UK, we have for a long time under-invested in our universities and still spend below the OECD average as a percentage of GDP.

The demand to study abroad from countries like India is increasing by eight per cent a year, with countries such as Australia and Canada having far more sensible policies in place to attract international students and therefore taking a growing share of international students around the world.

Like Australia and Canada, we need to do more to attract international students, rather than to deter them.

Both countries allow international students to stay in the country and work for a fixed period after they graduate. This is not counter to public opinion – three-quarters of the British public feel that the UK should do the same, according to a poll by ComRes conducted after the EU referendum. We should re-introduce the two-year poststudy work visa to grant that freedom which I personally fought to introduce in 2008.

The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has said there should be a target to attract more international students and this should be seen by government as a matter of urgency.

Such a target is maintained by other countries such as Australia, where the government wants to attract over 117,000 more students by 2020, and France where there is a target to double the number of students from India by 2020. The UK should be just as ambitious.

Under a quarter of the British public think that international students are immigrants, according to ComRes. We need to remove international students from net migration figures and take away any association between them and the disastrous target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.

According to Universities UK, international students add over £25 billion to the UK economy, supporting as many as 200,000 jobs.

We compare favourably with our competitors – including Australia, Canada and the USA – however, a report last year by Exporting Education UK and Parthenon EY estimated the UK’s lost income from a decline in international students since 2011 at around £9bn.

We need to act fast if we want to make sure our economy does not miss the huge opportunity to benefit from our universities’ global reputation.

At the University of Birmingham, 30 per cent of our academics come from overseas. Following the decision to trigger Article 50, there is already a great deal of uncertainty regarding their future, and many in the international academic community have hesitated in taking up positions in UK research institutions.

There are 130,000 EU students in the UK. With Brexit looming, there is a great worry of a decline in EU students coming to study in the UK. In fact, Cambridge has witnessed an 11 per cent fall in such applications.

Our valuable academics need swift reassurances from the government that they will still be able to hold their prestigious positions after Brexit and continue to do the collaborative research that makes such a huge impact throughout the world.

Attracting academic staff from across the world makes our institutions far more versatile, but our universities need more support from the government in order to fulfil their potential.

While Britain, has only one per cent of the world’s population, it is responsible for up to 15.9 per cent of the world’s highest-cited research papers, the government is showing little concern for sustaining this in the future.

I want to see more being done to spare the British higher education sector from the dangers that Brexit poses; greater public expenditure on higher education and more straightforward visa policies for our academics are needed; but we also need to take every measure to increase the number of international students and to make them feel welcome in the UK. I also urge the government to reintroduce physical exit checks at borders to ensure everyone coming in, but also those leaving the UK, is accounted for; exit checks were negligently removed in 1998 by Tony Blair.

Lord Bilimoria is a crossbench peer.