Universities must defend their international outlook

As countries across the world tighten their borders and politicians incite fears, it can be easy to forget how international the world has become, with few institutions as world-facing as universities.

In every institution in the UK there are overseas students being taught by international lecturers, down the hall from multinational research groups working toward the next big discovery. Universities have the international in their blood. And it was ever thus. The Universities of Oxford and Bologna, institutions with strong claims to be the first universities in Europe, have welcomed students and scholars from outside their countries since the middle ages.

Brexit is of course a hindrance to this tradition continuing, but not the only one. Amid increased hysteria around immigration, the hostile environment has crept into universities. Academics have been ordered to leave the country and countless more bright young minds will have been pushed away from Britain. As the global order fragments under the pressures of nationalism, concerns are being raised about the influence of authoritarian regimes in UK universities, especially China.

Despite all this, universities continue to look outwards for their students, whether that means setting up campuses overseas or welcoming students from abroad. For many universities, the income brought by international students and the higher fees they contribute have become essential. And with each graduation ceremony, former students fan out, taking the skills and knowledge they gained to new countries and cities, contributing to the high esteem in which UK higher education is held. Around ten percent of international students choose the UK as their destination, contributing massively to Britain’s soft power and influence.

Arguing the case

Within higher education, there is little debate as to the worth of international students. Nor are there questions about international academic and support staff, whose work drives the university. At Wonkfest, we’ll hear from eminent speakers across the higher education landscape who will talk of universities’ pride in their international outlook. Report after report after report shows the contribution students make to their institution and to the country as a whole.

The debate isn’t happening within; it’s happening without.

The past few years have seen a renewed rise in nativist thinking, with countries and governments retreating and isolating themselves. As standard bearers for a proudly cosmopolitan culture, universities, their staff, and their students have seen a barrage of criticism. These attacks focus on the culture and views of staff and students, but play into an anti-immigration narrative that politicians and campaigners are all too happy to use for broader aims.

At the level of policy, international students have borne the brunt of this, being used as scapegoats in political point scoring, but they’re not alone. The government’s hostile environment policy erects borders throughout the academy, with the Home Office deporting academics, sometimes back to a country they’ve never visited, and making the lives of support staff increasingly difficult, lives disrupted in the name of phoney nationalism.

Fighting back

The higher education system in the UK sometimes forgets its power. It errs on the side of caution when the mood of the age demands boldness. Despite this caution and in the wider context of mistrust toward higher education as a whole, we see campaigns like #MadeAtUni, which proclaim how universities improve our lives.

As we prepare to leave the EU and our future global relationships hang in the balance, a similar push should be made to promote the benefits to this country from our international partnerships and the people we welcome into our universities. We are very good at promoting world-leading UK universities abroad; perhaps the time has come for universities to promote “abroad” to the British public.

Home students play a role in this as well. Many students might not be immediately aware of the scale of their university’s global cosmopolitanism, but when asked, they reflect an overwhelmingly positive attitude to their international peers and an awareness that the presence of these students improves their experience. Universities can turn these positive feelings into concrete arguments. When universities fiercely argue the necessity of international collaboration, they give students the tools necessary to argue the same case.

At Wonkfest we will hear from Funmi Olonisakin of King’s College London, Vivienne Stern of Universities UK International, and Steve Woodfield of the British Council. All three speakers and all three organisations do great work within and beyond the borders of these islands. We’ll hear about the amazing research done by universities like King’s, the opportunities British universities offer to home and international students, and how UK universities shape global perceptions of the UK as a nation.

We’ll talk about the impact of political fragmentation, and how we can expand the debate beyond the people who are most passionate about our global engagement. And we’ll ask, very seriously, where our responsibilities lie in a complex global geopolitics and how universities can make a global impact and be good global citizens when that increasingly feels like working against the grain.

A retreat from the rest of the world won’t just harm universities, it will harm the entire country. Too often, we take for granted that things so simple don’t need to be argued for, but universities must boldly make the case for their international outlook. Regardless of how the issue of Brexit is finally settled, universities must make the case for working with peoples and nations across the globe.

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