Comment: Once more into the breech

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, discusses why it matters more than ever that universities speak out in support of our international communities.

Once more into the breech

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 23 Mau 2017 published in Times Higher Education

In his speech at the funeral of the Athenian Dead, Pericles famously said that the bravest are those who, while knowing the full strength of the forces ranged against them, still go out and face them. That they do not "faint beforehand with the meditation of future trouble".

Well at least we now know what we are facing in preserving our precious international community of scholars and their students. We understand that to speak for our international communities will take yet more courage and resolve.

Last week the Conservative party published its election manifesto, and it was laid out in black and white. The UK to leave the single market. Immigration to be reduced to the tens of thousands with students included not only within migration statistics but within the scope of its planned reductions. Visa regulations to be tightened. Costs of health for students and employment for overseas scholars to be increased. 

As I read it, I thought of all those who had worked so hard to make the case for how important international students and staff are, not just to our universities but to our towns and cities, hospitals, the economy and to the charities where they volunteer because they feel part of our communities.

And don't let anyone tell you that we failed to make this case. That we didn't work with others, engage with government or weren't positive. I say this because we should never think we failed to convince those who were actually listening to us.

In fact it was just the opposite. Over 100 institutions from our great historic universities to specialist colleges came together to say simply that this country's higher education is what it is because we are international. We were backed by business groups - the Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the CBI. We made films used by the Foreign Office which carried the banner of the GREAT campaign. We had a simple message of unity and welcome, told in the voice of students themselves. 

As part of a campaign which united UK universities, we commissioned independent research on the net economic impact of students on our city and region. And home and overseas students compiled images and stories of standing together - members of research groups, teachers and students, a poignant photograph of a UK and an Egyptian trainee doctor about to start an early morning shift in a provincial hospital. It came from the head and the heart. 

Our films explained the UK visa process by following the experience of students, as we travelled to India and China with civil servants from the Home Office to record the process. Such materials became a common resource for potential international students, reassuring them they were welcome in the UK. A Chinese language version was launched in parliament at an event attended by the immigration minister. The Home Secretary - Theresa May - had personally approved the collaboration. 

And we know that, for its key audience, it worked. The latest Hobsons survey of over 27,000 potential international students specifically mentions the role of the #WeAreInternational campaign in making overseas students feel welcome and mitigating fears associated with Brexit. 84% said it made a positive difference. 

Yet to assert that 'we are international' was never only about recruiting talent to the UK. It was a description of our values, a statement of fact about who we are. It paid tribute to teachers and researchers who make the UK their home and who are our colleagues and friends. 

But back to the where we are, the new world laid out before us in the manifesto.

I am undaunted in my commitment to being truly international, and I know my passion is matched by many of you reading this article. And this passion for an open society which nurtures understanding between peoples is fully matched by many of those in public and commercial life. We are by no means alone, neither in our fears or hopes.

So let's thank, and stick with, all those who have spoken with us about the international nature of universities and of the contribution we make. Not only the sector bodies and business organisations, or five different select committees and members of the Commons and Lords of all parties who spoke out. Newspapers from left to right published facts and even openly campaigned. We must also thank those who made a case and may still be doing so within the government, including the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. 

And we must let them know that this is too important for us to give up the struggle. We know UK universities are places of important scholarship and teaching which are crucial to our cities, regions, the world. We know that we are a unique place of meeting and respect between nations. We know that to lose beloved international staff and students could put all that at risk.  

But we also know that it will be hard. Damned hard.

International staff and students are naturally sensitive to the sense that they are welcome in a country. In the U.S. of travel bans and political rhetoric about immigration, postgraduate recruitment from overseas is plummeting, heading to destinations which are perceived to be safe and welcoming. The University of Alberta has seen international student recruitment increase by 82% this year - that figure including an increase of 159% in students from India and 196% from Iran. 

In Britain we have already seen a reduction in talented Indian students following the loss of post study work entitlements. The Financial Times today reports the rise of overseas business students in Germany, concerned about post-study visas in the U.S. and UK. There will be more of this. We must hold government to the idea that UK universities should continue to be the envy of the world and be a first choice for students across the globe. 

And when that student, teacher or researcher arrives to be part of our universities, we should make them truly welcome. For a period of time, the UK should be home. As the Hebrew bible so beautifully puts it: "The stranger who resides with you shall be as a native among you..." 

These are serious times in which a new mood in global politics will challenge universities to our core, in the UK and around the world. As a diverse international community, we stand in sharp contrast to a world in which conflict abounds and where hatred may burst onto our streets. Tensions are high. Our freedom to speak as an international community may be sorely tried in the face of a shifting political paradigm. 

The issues are fundamental. Who is the stranger? And who is a native?  These are the great questions of our age. I must engage with them as a scientist and an educator as much as anyone studying politics or philosophy. 

We must do this not least in the memory of who built our academia, those who kept the faith in more dangerous and trying times than we have had to face. We can and should be a place of hope, of a better way.

Some will say that universities really shouldn't keep talking about immigration, overseas staff and students or internationalisation. Politicians warn we should end our 'dependency' on international staff and students. Train up our own Nobel laureates. Give up this selfish strain.  

Don't you believe it. This is our time. Universities have never needed to assert our values more. To hold fast to the values of global scholarship - and those of humanity beyond academia - is not the response of a spoiled child. It is the courage of our convictions.