ONE of the key promises made by the ruling Conservative Party in the UK during the election campaign was to reduce the number of non-European Union immigrants moving to the country.
The British government categorises around quarter of a million people arriving in the country each year as non-EU ‘immigrants’. Astonishingly, despite the temporary nature of their entry clearance, international students are also included in this category.
Therefore, when a new immigration policy was announced by the coalition government that aimed at reducing the number of the immigrants to “tens of thousands”, it was widely feared that this could only be accomplished by significantly cutting down on the number of international students arriving in the UK for higher education.
Over the years, international students have become a critical part of the higher education sector in the UK by not only contributing £2bn per annum, but also enriching campus life while adding to the diversity and multiculturalism in the country. These students were therefore very much valued and most universities competed to attract the best available international students from as many countries as possible.
This, however, seems to be changing radically as a result of a number of factors ranging from the shift in government policy to the country’s changing socio-economic environment. As a result, international students suffer and must increasingly look for other destinations. The UK, therefore, is in grave danger of losing its place as the favoured destination for higher studies, a position it has enjoyed for well over a century and a half.
One of the key reasons for the recent shift in attitudes towards international students is the economic turmoil in which most of the Western world, including the UK, has been embroiled. The scale of this disaster can be understood by the fact that by the end of the financial year 2011, unemployment had reached unprecedented levels of 16 per cent with 2.5 million people out of jobs. The country’s economy has shown no signs of growth since then, resulting in economic hardship of the sort that people in the country have not seen since WWII. One of the reactions to this has been a massive swing in people’s mood towards ‘British jobs for British people,’ creating a large anti-immigrant constituency.
It is also true that for years, a large number of international students abused the system by obtaining student visas when their real intentions were to enter the country for work. However, as long as the British economy was growing and there was need for cheap labour, successive British governments generally turned a blind eye towards this practice. However, with the shrinking of the economy and the increase in unemployment, this practice became unsustainable.
Stringent measures were therefore taken to stop students entering the workplace, including making the visa regime tougher, forcing the closure of hundreds of bogus colleges (which had been tolerated earlier) that were involved in the scam and enacting policies that severely limit the possibility of international students working in industry.
The axe also fell on genuine students who completed advanced courses at recognised institutions of learning in the country. Until recently, various sections of British industry such as health, finance, consultancy, information technology and other technological services were able to rely on the best of international students as potential employees. But with the closure of work visa schemes such as the Highly Skilled Workers (Tier 1 General) and the Post-Study Work (PSW), this also seems to be coming to an end.
More worrying is the changing general attitude towards international students. The British government, for example, while revoking the licence of the London Metropolitan University for failing to comply with the new immigration policy completely ignored the implications for hundreds of international students studying at the institution who were instructed to either switch universities or leave the country within six months. The decision had to be challenged in court for them to be allowed to complete the current academic year.
Not so long ago, a number of Pakistani students were rounded up on charges of terrorism and kept in detention, only to be released later and deported when no evidence was found. Arsalan Ghani, the first Pakistani to be elected president of the Graduate Union that represents some 11,000 MA, MPhil and PhD students at the University of Cambridge, has reportedly been a victim of a sustained campaign intended to discriminate against him on allegedly racial grounds.
It is critical that the intelligentsia, industry and the government in the UK understands the consequences of discouraging international students. Not only do they contribute billions of pounds to the economy, they add to the diversity in the country and constitute a skilled human resource. Their significance as an important component of British foreign policy to foster people-to-people contacts is also vital. Many of these students return to play a leading role in politics, business, academia and other spheres of life in their respective countries. The time spent in the UK and the relationships developed with local people during this time go a long way towards establishing and maintaining a lasting bond which pays indirect dividends. In an increasingly globalised world, these political and economic linkages are something that the UK cannot afford to lose.
It is important for British policymakers to reverse the process of branding students ‘immigrants’ and closing the doors of employment on them. Only with more awareness and the government’s ability to rise above short-term political objectives can Britain rediscover the tremendous contribution that international students make to its society.
The writer is a doctoral student at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.