Several years ago, in my last job, I was invited to do some work in Xiamen on the Chinese coast. A young Chinese student was allocated to look after me, to show me around and, I guess, to make sure I didn’t do anything undesirable. He was, he told me, very interested in England and he knew all about it: he had read Pride and Prejudice and watched Downton Abbey. Over the course of the four days we were together I tried to explain to him that maybe Downton and Jane Austen weren’t necessarily the most reliable of guides to understanding modern Britain, but first impressions had been very powerful for him. And it turned out that he did have another source: on my afternoon off, he suggested we get a ferry across to Gulangyu island just off the Xiamen coast. We explored the island for several hours. It’s a popular backdrop for wedding photographs and has excellent restaurants. Then we missed the last ferry back. We weren’t the only people in this plight and the student and some of the others worked out a solution: we trekked across part of the island to a fishing harbour, where they persuaded a fisherman to get his boat out and sail us back to the city. Sitting squashed together in the small boat as the light faded, the student turned to me, grinned and said, ‘Swallows and Amazons!’.
There are several lessons from this experience – including of course, always to make sure you know the time of the last ferry or bus. But one of the others is about the enormous cultural influence which the UK exercises, so that around the world the combination of the power of the English language and the strength of our cultural industries means that we exercise a remarkable influence. And another is that one of the results of that influence is that readers and screen users around the world build up rapid, and difficult to dislodge images of the United Kingdom.
Last week the government floated an idea which I described in one of my most frequently retweeted tweets ever as “catastrophically bad”. In the wake of figures suggesting that immigration into the United Kingdom had reached half a million, an embattled Home Office turned its attention to international student visas and suggested that the numbers should be sharply cut, either by restricting student visas to a small number of universities or by putting tight restrictions on student visas. I suspect that the first of these would pose insuperable legal obstacles for government whilst the second would be devastating for universities and for the soft power of the UK.
The economic, cultural, and social contribution of international students to the United Kingdom is enormous. It’s a crude measure, but the estimate is that international students make an economic contribution upwards of £30billion – or, putting differently, 20% of the NHS budget. The government’s official policy, as set out in its international student strategy is to encourage continued growth in international student numbers. And there are good cultural and social reasons for that. Strong international student recruitment extends opportunities for UK students. In every university in the country, there is academic provision which would be unviable without robust international recruitment. Much of this would be lost. In every university in the country, the community is strengthened by diversity. In every university in the country, international students broaden horizons and reach. And, as we have seen for the last hundred years or more, the opportunity to play a part in educating the next generation of global leaders gives the United Kingdom an exceptional edge. This is a story often repeated in the examples of former international students who go on to lead their nation’s governments, but it plays out at every level: future headteachers, future industry leaders, future community leaders.
Of course, the political challenge for government lies in those immigration statistics. There is a global standard for defining who gets included in migration statistics, and any migrant with a visa for more than twelve months should, apparently, be counted in immigration statistics. In practice, the overwhelming majority of international students return home after their studies – though government also has a policy commitment to attract ‘global talent’ to settle and work here. The ’half million’ figure reported in the news last week was also inflated by refugees from Hong Kong and Ukraine, but even so, government needs to do a much better job of understanding, and then explaining, the significance of our universities in shaping perceptions of the UK and the contribution which international students bring. There’s polling evidence which suggests that the British public understand this rather better than politicians.
We live in a globally inter-connected world. The UK has outstanding universities and a great history in educating people from around the world. But future students are sophisticated consumers of news in this global world, and the headlines about student visas in last week’s British press were picked up in, for example, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and the Nigerian Premium Times. My guide’s first impressions of the UK were shaped by Downton, Arthur Ransome and Jane Austen. It will be tragic if the views of future students are shaped by the impression that they are not welcome here – because they are welcome, and they contribute so much.