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Responding to Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz’s new paper on international students

  • 2 July 2015


On the morning of 2nd July, 2015, the Leadership Foundation held an event to launch a personal perspective on international students by Leszek Borysiewicz, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. The Director of HEPI made the following remarks at the event.

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak. It is a great pleasure to be here. I note the Leadership Foundation is currently growing from strength to strength, with excellent new papers on religion and higher education and BME leaders and now today’s new paper offering a personal view on student migration.

Cambridge is an incredibly important city for the UK’s future. So it is particularly good to see Cambridge University’s Vice-Chancellor putting his personal and institutional stamp so forcefully behind the campaign to improve the offer for international students.

I agree with the analysis in his paper and I agree with his policy prescriptions too.

  • We do need to offer a red carpet rather than the current obstacle course to international students.
  • We should remove international students from the key metric used to assess performance against the target to reduce net inward migration to the tens of thousands.
  • And we should look again, as is happening in Scotland, at the post-study work rules.

But we could go further. In the paper, Borys criticises politicians for their ‘short-termism’ and ‘expediency’. We shouldn’t just regret this and cross our fingers hoping for change. We should search for the root cause and look for ways to encourage a new approach.

There are two additional changes that could reshape how we set policy on international students:

  1. First, I would like to see a review of the full costs and benefits of international students by the Migration Advisory Committee, which is the independent body that is meant to help Whitehall solve tricky migration issues. Until we have a thorough assessment of the costs and benefits of international students from a body that the Home Office listens to, then they are likely to go on exaggerating the costs and underestimating the benefits. Incidentally, when I challenged MigrationWatch on this, they agreed it was a good idea. So such a review may not be as divisive an issue as people think.
  1. Secondly, I would like to see some sharing of responsibility for migration policy among different government departments. Frankly, we should recognise that the Home Office has a job to do keeping us safe and tackling migration. But the problem is they have become the sole arbiter on contentious issues. That is not what happens in other countries and is not what used to happen here. The Home Office need to be counterbalanced by other Whitehall forces, including ones more powerful than BIS – such as the Treasury, which understands the economic benefits of educational exports, and the Foreign Office, which understands the soft-power benefits that come from educating the world’s future leaders.

It is not just that the economic benefits and British influence in the world are greater the more international students that we welcome to our shores. It is also that there are educational benefits for home students from studying in diverse classrooms. Our own research, published only last Thursday shows, suggests that over three-quarters of our full-time undergraduate respondents who study alongside people from other countries regard it as ‘useful preparation for working in a global environment’.

The presence of international students is thought by some to disrupt the learning of British students; in fact, our evidence shows they enhance it. It’s the nationalist argument for more international students, if you like. Indeed, given how bad we are as a country at modern foreign languages and how little outward mobility there is among British students, having international classrooms perhaps benefits us in the UK even more than it does elsewhere.

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