Comment: Welcoming foreign students to the UK builds trade and allies

University of Sheffield President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett comments on how higher education should receive support for earning revenue and making valuable ties.

Welcoming foreign students to the UK builds trade and allies

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 30 November 2017, published in the Financial Times

In H G Wells’ wartime bestseller Mr Britling Sees It Through, published in 1916, the author tells the story of the middle-class family of a scholar in Edwardian England ripped apart by the horrors of the first world war.

In the final chapter of the book, Mr Britling, whose beloved son Hugh has been lost in the trenches, writes to the parents of the young German man, also now lost, who had worked as his research assistant before the Great War.

His letter is a desperate plea for sanity and redemption, a letter of hope from suffering parent to suffering parent, written while England felt brutal despair.

Praised at the time for its humanity, the novel shatters the myth of a Jingoistic nation. The “war to end all wars” did not prevent other conflicts. Since the end of the second world war, there have been 250 conflicts in which more than 50m people have been killed in total.

The decrease in applications from EU students this year confirms our worst fears: Brexit, and Theresa May’s refusal to exclude students from migration calculations will have a substantial impact on the economy’s vital cities.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

But here is a source of hope. The navy of the British empire carried the flower of British and Asian youth to die at the front. Today, young people travel across the oceans not to fight but to study.

Once, only the very rich had the good fortune to taste the peacetime possibilities of living in other lands. Today, hundreds of thousands of families invest in a far better sacrifice: education. Their young will return stronger, with productive and competitive skills.

What would HG Wells think of our times? Perhaps he, like me, would imagine that lost generation of young men — not dead and buried in the mud of Flanders but living and learning in colleges across the world.

Never before in human history have so many travelled to learn and research across the world. Chinese students walk the streets of London, learning English and buying English goods. Young people travel between nations who once viewed each other as enemies. Students sit side by side from Greece and Cyprus, Serbia and Kosovo, Turkey and Albania. Students from throughout the world find a new identity as they mix with peers from other lands.

We know that globalisation will not guarantee world peace. Some believed the first world war was impossible because of the international connections made through trade; they believed that doux commerce would bind people together. Others warned that trade could lead to envy, from which resentment could grow.

Educational bonds can ensure we trade on good terms. In India, where half the population is under 25, there is huge demand for higher education, not met by the domestic universities. If the UK wants to trade with India, it must be ready to open its borders to India’s ambitious students. The freedom to trade and the movement of people are two sides of the same coin.

Students are not immigrants, they are temporary visitors who make considerable annual investments in the UK. But the decrease in applications from EU students this year confirms our worst fears: Brexit, and Theresa May’s refusal, both as prime minister and as home secretary, to exclude students from migration calculations, will have a substantial impact on the economy’s vital cities. Why cause additional financial damage in these places when we could do good?

And Chinese parents pay billions of pounds towards degree courses in the UK for their children — the largest proportion of international students in the UK. Their spending amounts to about 20 per cent of staff salaries and the investment in new teaching facilities and scholarships, not to mention the cash spent on food, taxi rides and rent. A large part of that cash was earned manufacturing the goods China has sold to the west.

Without these international students, inward investment would shrink. Shops in university towns and cities would fall to the Plimsoll line of viability. Assuming the UK government would not replace the loss in these fees from overseas, universities would face a devastating cut in funding. Our most talented global research teams would be cruelly diminished, leaving to base themselves elsewhere.

The UK benefits from others’ years of hard work, scrimping and saving so that a child can study in another land, expand their horizons, learn another language, make friends and find colleagues of every creed and colour.

That is why we want those students to study here and to take their affectionate memories back to their own countries, becoming the UK’s friends and allies.