Comment: Why Britain's universities must be international for the country to thrive

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, discusses the importance of international students for the future of the country.

Why Britain's universities must be international for the country to thrive

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 13 October 2016, published in Newsweek

At last, it seems the country is waking up to the news that international students have been given a hard time for no reason. It appears the government has been sitting on a report showing that international students don’t all stay in the UK after they graduate. This, I’m afraid, is nothing new.

For years now, there has been a disturbing run of stories about international students. As Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, I have found myself repeatedly knocking down those claims. They include: International students are taking the places of UK students; they don’t speak good English; they aren’t integrated; they are a drain on local economies and services. And, worst and most racist of all, they damage the experience of home students who would be so much better off in some whitewashed English only university.

I feel sick to my stomach that we have to answer such nonsense, but we also have a duty to tell the truth about such an important issue.

First of all, international students don’t take the place of British students, whose numbers are determined in very different ways. In fact, they prop up courses and university finances, funding facilities which are used by UK and international students alike and making teaching viable, particularly in expensive-to-deliver areas like science and engineering. Those are the precise areas we need for our economy.

And it’s not just teaching. International student funding is the one area that hasn’t been frozen since the 2007 Budget statement, in which the government promised a flat cash settlement for science funding that wasn’t tied to inflation—in effect, a fall in real terms— with no increases in student fees. As a result, we have been able to continue to innovate and build our local economies, but nobody should be under an illusion. The wonderful facilities that have sprung up in towns and cities across the nation, and that create jobs and attract inward investment to boost our flagging city centers are all dependent on this global injection of funds and people. Without international students, it would all stop.

If the UK really does want to be open to the world, it could learn something from our universities. We are a place of hope and excellence because we are international.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

When it comes to English-language teaching standards, that’s a misconception. We have challenging English-language requirements across the board, and continue to support English standards during periods of study.

The lack of integration is yet another myth. International students are more, not less, likely to volunteer in our local communities. In a recent festival in my own University’s city of Sheffield, 75 percent of volunteers were international students keen to make a difference in their new home town. They loved it. National societies all adopt a local charity. Students from India and China teach maths to children whose parents can’t afford tuition in some of the poorest parts of this city. They want to lift, not harm.

As for being a drain on our services in the city, nothing could be further from the truth. Our international students are on the early morning and night shifts of the highly-rated teaching hospitals across this region. According to thinktank Oxford Economics, even when you take off the costs of services which they use, they contribute 10% of total inward investment to the region. This is not unusual. While London may benefit from much of the global inward investment and tourist spend into the UK, there are not many areas of the economy where global inward investment is spread in ways which benefit economies right across Britain. Higher Education, however, is one.

Look out over the city of Sheffield and you will see cranes that are only there because of international students. New facilities are being built to attract talent in areas like engineering. We as a university have subsidized the building of the UK’s capability in advanced manufacturing research, empowering British companies to win orders and train 600 apprentices. We have taken land at the old Orgreave Colliery—a site famous for a bloody clash between police and coal miners in 1984—and turned it into a global hub for UK industrial strategy. Without international students, we could not have made this investment. Orgreave would still be a slag heap.

So what about that final myth—that international students somehow damage the experience of home students? Well here, I see red and so do our students, British and international. They say the opposite. They are not afraid of being proudly British or whatever home nationality you would like to mention (my university welcomes students from 130 countries). They are also global citizens, the generation who will have to address climate change, international conflict, food security, sustainable development and demographic changes… together.

How and where do they learn to address these problems with people from all over the world. Here. At Britain’s great universities. The place which has long been the home of the most talented scholars from around the world. Where 30 per cent of our staff are from overseas and yet who have served our young people with care all their careers.

Which is why I was proud to begin a campaign to say why #WeAreInternational with our students, staff and alumni. And why I am even prouder that it has been adopted by universities across this country who don’t want to listen to nonsense about their dear fellow students, colleagues and friends.

If the UK really does want to be open to the world, it could learn something from our universities. We are a place of hope and excellence because we are international. The day we hide the truth of this and pretend that we would be better off with less sharing, less interaction, would be a brutal day for this country and a disaster for the quality education for which we have so rightly become globally respected.