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Universities need to change their argument about international students

Universities are struggling to win the debate on international students because they are preaching to the choir. Sunder Katwala sets out a strategy for reaching out beyond the 'usual suspects'.
This article is more than 5 years old

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future, a non-partisan thinktank that focuses on migration and identity. He is former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

International students bring many benefits to Britain. They bring billions into the UK economy, improving facilities in our universities, spending cash in towns and cities across the UK, and broadening the horizons of their British fellow students.

The public approve – eight out of ten voters would not cut the number of international students; many more would increase numbers than cut them.

Yet universities and their political allies are not winning the political argument for international students, and now risk going backwards. Under David Cameron, several key ministers went public in taking on Home Secretary Theresa May, but the wheel of political fortune has now elevated the most sceptical Cabinet minister to the premiership. Hopes of an early advance have turned into a defensive effort, with the government due to consult on ideas for restricting international student and post-study opportunities, for some universities at least.

In this tougher political context, doubling down on the efforts which haven’t succeeded so far will probably bring diminishing returns. So how might a winning argument be made?

1 – Understand the lessons from the EU referendum

Universities UK took an active part in the referendum campaign for Remain, yet like all pro-EU campaigners, struggled to reach beyond those who already agreed with them. The Remain campaign won the referendum argument whenever they were talking to graduate audiences, but more often lost it whenever they weren’t. For those who are anxious or struggling economically, hearing from vice chancellors talk about how well universities do out of international students and global exchange may mainly trigger the thought, ‘its obviously working out better for you than it is for me’. More needs to be done to convey why what is good for universities is good for the public, not mainly a matter of institutional self-interest.

2 – Think about which audience the message needs to reach

The difficulty for the pro-Remain universities in the referendum campaign was persuading public audiences. Now, the challenge is more in persuading elite audiences who work in government and parliament, but who want to be seen to be responding to public demands. Universities’ advocates and messages currently resonate much more readily with opposition parties – the SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – than with the party of government, the Conservatives.

Advocates need to get a positive message in shape for centre-right audiences, without sacrificing that broader support on the left. This may mean resisting attempts to reactivate existing coalitions of liberal support at every opportunity, in order to focus on the moments around which winning coalitions can coalesce.

3 – Messengers matter

Universities are under political pressure despite the public being on their side. One of the reasons for this is that the Prime Minister benefits – particularly with key media organisations and political audiences – when she picks a fight with representatives of the ‘liberal elite’, such as university vice chancellors. When this fight is being picked, universities should ensure they do not fall into the trap. International students is an issue on which most Remain and Leave advocates agree, and ensuring pro-Brexit voices play a prominent role in cross-party coalitions of support would demonstrate that.

Universities and their allies should also localise their messengers and messages as much as possible, to provide ‘show not tell’ examples of why society, not just universities themselves, gains when students choose to come to Britain. Business voices from local chambers of commerce can talk about commercially successful research spin-offs; cab drivers best weekend of the year might be when students from India and China need a taxi to campus; cafes, restaurants and bars all receive students’ business. These voices need to be better heard.

4 – Think strategically, and stop refighting old battles

Taking students out of net migration figures is unlikely to happen anytime soon. While the migration target is being missed by a wide margin, whether international students are counted within it or outside it is not the main issue. There will be a new debate about what immigration targets make sense ahead of the 2020 General Election. For the next two years, before the contours of the Brexit deal are known, arguing about the net migration target every time the quarterly figures come out will be a rather phoney war.

Universities and their allies should move on. The core focus should be on what Britain’s universities need to make a success of Brexit, competing with international competitors to bring the maximum gains to the towns, cities and regions that they are part of.

5 – Don’t polarise with an ‘open versus closed’ frame

In the wake of the referendum, university voices want to declare that they stand for ‘open versus closed’. Yet this messaging risks polarising the migration debate between Britain’s forward looking graduate minority and an opposing minority who want to turn the clock back half a century. It does too little to reach the actual public majority of ‘engageable sceptics’; those who know that we live in an increasingly global age, but who feel the benefits of globalisation and migration are too narrowly spread.

‘We are international’ is a good message to send to international staff, students and partners abroad, but it can also send a ‘not in our name’ message to audiences closer to home. Universities must avoid implying that that they see themselves as island outposts of cosmopolitan tolerance, seeking to apologise for the democratic choices made by citizens in the regions which they claim to serve.

Thinking about patchwork polarisation

Some analysts have characterised the referendum as a revolt against London, yet the results reveal a much more interesting ‘patchwork polarisation’ across the UK. In every region of Britain you can travel from a city centre fifteen miles down the road and see the referendum result change by 15% or more. The referendum map illuminates the cultural distance in confidence and control, voice and power between Manchester and Wigan, between Newcastle and Hartlepool, between Cardiff and the Welsh Valleys, between Norwich and the rest of Norfolk, between Exeter and everywhere to its west.

Here lies the opportunity for our universities to become active agents of social depolarisation, by linking their role as regional hubs of growth and global exchange with an ever more sustained and visible commitment to ensuring those opportunities feel real and relevant to school-leavers and parents in those places that most fear being left behind, perhaps only a few miles down the road.

Such a commitment could create a strong new argument against restricting international student recruitment to the most prestigious institutions in the leafiest places. Concentrating the gains of global exchange to Oxford and Cambridge and cutting them from Sunderland, Stoke, Plymouth, and Portsmouth would betray what almost everybody agrees is the core lesson of the referendum! Such an argument will land effectively if it is championed from the very places which do not want to be cut off.

This popular argument for international students and a global argument can indeed be won, but only once the voices heard making it are no longer the ‘usual suspects’.

One response to “Universities need to change their argument about international students

  1. Actually, i think this is one of the more sensible pieces of advice out of the thousands written in the last six months.

    I would add two things – firstly it is a complete waste of time talking to May – she’s far to obstinate and entrenched in her rather infantile position. Perhaps talking to Conservative MPs who are vulnerable to the job/vote losses if things go pear shaped in the universities in their constituencies would be more productive. Richmond showed that Hard Brexit has electoral consequencies for some MPs, and there is only a small government majority..I particularly applaud the notion of making common cause with Leaverers by the way – even Farage thinks the current stance on students is idiotic.

    Secondly, make common cause with other educational institutions when engaging in outreach work in vulnerable constituencies. Whether it be FE Colleges hit by the economic climate, or, importantly, the reputable independent schools and colleges worried about international recruitment and perhaps ideologically more likely to get through t some of these MPs, we need to make common cause and find allies wherever we can

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