Comment: Sheffield's New Era is founded on global friendship

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sheffield, talks about the importance of international students in making our city more prosperous and more vibrant.

Sheffield's New Era is founded on global friendship

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 20.9.18, published in the Sheffield Telegraph

On Saturday morning I had the great pleasure of attending the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Sheffield’s New Era Development.

Like many others, I have often driven past its distinctive blue-tiled tower on the corner of Bramall Lane and watched the building take shape. What has made this sight even more meaningful to me is that I have had the good fortune to know personally the man behind the project, Jerry Cheung.

Born in Hong Kong, Jerry is an adopted son of Sheffield who has long wanted to make a home for Chinese businesses, students and investment in Sheffield. So it was a proud occasion for all involved, and Sheffield's traditional leaders were out in force – the Lord Lieutenant, Leader of the Council, the Cabinet Member for Business and Enterprise, the Head of the Chamber of Commerce and former Master Cutlers. There were those who ran companies too – architects and developers, subcontractors, and men and women who had worked on the building insurance or organised the finance. Local companies employing local people.

But this was also an international event. In the development's new supermarket (home to a firm which began trading years ago on London Road), I bought traditional Chinese pastries bearing the proud slogan ‘Made in Sheffield’. I saw Chinese students moving cases and supplies into their new home from home. And I met the Chinese investors who had chosen Sheffield to build a project they hope will be unique in Britain in its mix of student life and China-friendly business space.

The senior partner in this venture, Mr Qin, gave a formal speech of thanks, but he quickly made clear that this investment was personal. He paid a moving tribute to his wife, who was also present – a woman who loves the UK and had first come here as a student 30 years ago. The children were there too. It had the feeling of a family occasion.

Which is why I knew my final column as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, in a city I have called home for more than a decade, simply had to focus on just how important international students are to this place, and why we must not allow anyone to threaten their future with us.

On this vital issue, I am proud that our city has always spoken as one. Whatever people's political views – from the traditional grandeur of the Cutlers’ Hall to our image-busting young Somali mayor – we have understood and proclaimed together that international students help make our city more prosperous and more vibrant.

Together we have honoured international medical students who work tirelessly in our hospitals. We have thanked students from over 100 countries who have volunteered and fundraised for local charities. We have been deeply grateful for the huge impact overseas students have on our economy and the jobs that are safe because of them. We even cheered on a shy engineer who first arrived in the UK as a PhD student from India as he was twice named Star Baker on Channel 4’s Bake Off!

Our country must not take for granted the investment and sacrifice of families thousands of miles away – hard-earned fees which pay for the facilities of our University, our freedom to invest in buildings like the Diamond or our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

Professor Sir Keith burnett, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sheffield

And we know from experience that the bonds of friendship and affection go both ways and last decades. We have 10,000 University of Sheffield graduates in China alone. People who love Devonshire Green, Henderson's Relish, the City Hall and the Leadmill. People who smile if someone mentions Sheffield.

And we know that when a Chinese mother supports her family's investment in the country where she was once a student long ago, this is about more than commerce and we all benefit.

Yet this wonderful flow of the talented youth of the world is not guaranteed to last forever. Our country must not take for granted the investment and sacrifice of families thousands of miles away – hard-earned fees which pay for the facilities of our University, our freedom to invest in buildings like the Diamond or our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

Ministers tell us how important science and innovation are to our future after Brexit. But the UK government only funds three out of every four pounds of that research by British universities. Who covers the rest, helps buy the equipment we need to make the next breakthrough in medicine or engineering? Simple. We owe a huge debt of thanks to hard-working families across the globe who lend us their children so they can gain their education here in Sheffield.

So what is the problem? The truth is that these students are not always sure they are welcome. Visa policies in the UK are less favourable than in other parts of the world and Brexit has raised questions about whether British people really do want to welcome talent from around the world.

This is why it is a matter of deep pride to me that the UK-wide campaign to welcome international students, #WeAreInternational, began in this city. Why it is important that our city MP is a co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students and that our regional mayor last week gave evidence in the Houses of Parliament with our University on just what these students bring to our city and why we want the government to help us to retain their skills.

The great cities of the world are open to talent, wherever it comes from. They know that a bond of affection forged when you are young may bring enormous blessings years down the line.

Once upon a time, Sheffield was a steel city which manufactured munitions for the Empire. Today it is a city which develops the talents and relationships which enrich our own community and build bridges of understanding for the whole world. I could not be more proud that I have played a part in saying how very much this matters, and I urge all citizens of Sheffield to do the same.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and honorary president of the China UK Business Incubator, a not-for-profit collaboration between the University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield City Council, Sheffield Chambers of Commerce and the Sheffield New Era Development.