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The HE sector must make more of the true value of international students

International students are more than a source of export revenue - they bring cultural and educational benefit. Bashir Makhoul worries that students are becoming a political football
This article is more than 1 year old

Bashir Makhoul is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts

As the UK welcomes record numbers of international students, our understanding of their true value has never been more blinkered. They are too often regarded in media and political debate as convenient sources of revenue at best, and challenging additions to immigration figures at worst.

The financial contribution is undeniably significant. The hundreds of thousands of international students who come to the UK bring with them £25.9 billion annually to the UK economy through fees and spending. They are attracted here by a world-class education system, including a leading, global creative education sector.

Writing, in an open letter to Home Secretary Suella Braverman, in response to her plans to restrict visas to international students, Universities UK spelled out what was at stake financially to the country. UUK makes a compelling evidence-based case that education, as one of the UK’s “premier export industries” would be under threat should she pursue such policies. The hard reality is that many universities would face financial collapse without the huge contribution made by international students. Domestic fees would certainly have to go up and higher education will become increasingly unattainable for many young people in this country.

However, this picture of economic harm across the board conceals perhaps greater, much deeper long-term damage to the country and misses what I regard as the true value of students who come to the UK to study.

Soft power superpower

We must broaden our understanding of the benefits of international students to our country, and avoid, at all costs, treating them as mere golden geese herded into universities to help subsidise domestic students. It means understanding and valuing their contribution in enriching the student experience, and the powerful ambassadorial role these students can play for the UK.

In its own Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the UK government called our nation a “soft power superpower”, underpinned by our world-class education, science and research institutions and our creative and cultural industries. The UK’s influence through education is immense. Just take the example of world leaders: over one in four countries around the world have heads of state or government who were educated in the UK. The political and economic significance of this for the UK’s continuing global position cannot be overestimated.

Engagement with UK systems and sensibilities through transformative educational experiences leaves an indelible impression on the identities of our international students. I know this better than most. When I first came to the UK from Palestine as a fine art undergraduate, I immersed myself in British ways of life and was encouraged to critique the political systems that had shaped my understanding of the world in a way that previously would have been unthinkable. My own journey as an international student, artist, writer, and educator was founded on experiences that forged my very identity, and I hope that those around me benefitted from our interactions.

The wealth of cultural experience and diversity international students bring also positively impacts domestic students. Professional roles today don’t exist in a national bubble. Students set out on a career path that is international by nature, whether through ownership and funding, staffing or business links. The perspectives of other students from around the world enrich the knowledge and experience of domestic students, the academic community, and our whole society. When the University for the Creative Arts opened the Institute for Creativity and Innovation in Xiamen, China, the rationale was not solely a commercial one. It was about meaningful collaboration that benefits students in both countries, giving them a rich cultural experience that will prepare them for careers that are increasingly global.

A true welcome

Why then does the current government, on the one hand, laud the critical role that the education sector makes to the UK’s global soft power, while on the other, speak of cracking down on student numbers and restricting their visas? The debate about international student numbers in the context of immigration policy quickly boils down to a crude headcount. What is rarely discussed or even mentioned are the long-term cultural benefits, in addition to the fact that the majority of international students pursue careers in their home nations at the end of their studies. Figures from just before the pandemic show that over half of non-EU students left the country at the end of their studies, and the majority of those who stayed did so to carry on their education.

The UK can have the best of both worlds. We can attract the brightest and best, allowing them to stay on to do valuable work in our economy, or spreading the UK’s global reach, as they return home after their studies to take up influential professional roles. Yet an increasingly insular and nationalistic approach is blinding the current government to clear opportunities that will benefit global Britain. We as a nation should take pride in the excellence and influence of our education sector and want to share that across the world. Perhaps even feel duty bound to.

Universities should be asking themselves how they can truly welcome international students, create a fusion of experiences and ideas that generate new discoveries, and harness the powerful global perspective and influence those students bring. If they don’t, we must question whether universities are fulfilling their true purpose. Our universities exist not only to collect fees and churn out teaching in return, but to open minds and instil curiosity in all our students. To give students a truly creative and innovative mindset.

There are plenty of other nations that understand the cultural, political, and economic power of education and are working hard to attract students from around the globe. The UK cannot afford to be complacent. If we continue to treat our international students as either a political football in parochial debates on immigration or as just a revenue stream, our society, universities, and national interest will be all the poorer for it. And we shouldn’t forget the human element to our obligations to education. That means we should encourage and nurture a cross-cultural interaction that benefits many UK industries.

3 responses to “The HE sector must make more of the true value of international students

  1. “International students are more than a source of export revenue – they bring cultural and educational benefit.” Chinese students especially, as we had at the WSA during your tenure?

  2. Assertions about UK soft power through education seem overstated, complacent or ill-founded. As I explain at only two of the G20 leaders took any of their education overseas (both PG with one going to the US and one to Belgium). It’s probable (though sometimes disputed) that seven or eight of them did nothing beyond UG in country with some not going to university at all). Government hyperbole like “soft power superpower” fails to deal with the hard realities that in the long run all that will count is the quality of student experience, the value for money it offers and the long term career/life prospects for the individual who invests a huge amount of money to travel for an education. The more they fail to fund the sector the less likely it will be that the sector can compete in these key areas.

  3. I’m pleased to read this article. It is good to know how the vice-chancellor perceives international students.
    Most of all, the following comment provides good guidance for me. ‘Our universities exist not only to collect fees and churn out teaching in return but to open minds and instil curiosity in all our students. To give students a truly creative and innovative mindset.’ Having ‘a true welcome’ mind and attitude is essential to make this globalised world a flourishing place (not just a place for surviving).

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