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Why we will all still need to go on talking about international students in 2019

  • 17 December 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

We started 2018 by publishing HEPI’s most substantial ever piece of work. Back in January 2018, we published a report by London Economics, commissioned jointly by HEPI and Kaplan International Pathways, which showed the contribution of international students to the UK.

The report built upon our previous work on soft power and the non-financial benefits of educating so many people from other countries, as well as our other work with Kaplan and London Economics on the impact of Brexit on student flows. It provided figures for the financial contribution to the UK of international students – EU and non-EU alike, including undergraduates and postgraduates.

The work did two things that no one else had done in detail before.

  1. First, it didn’t just consider the gross financial benefits of hosting so many international students but also considered the costs. This was because the Home Office was known to have discounted other people’s calculations for the benefits on the grounds that they ignored the other side of the equation. To ensure we were not accused of massaging the figures, we took a conservative approach to the benefits, excluding – for example – all tax payments from EU students working part-time alongside their studies as well as any contributions from those who stayed in the UK after their studies. We also took an expansive definition of the costs, including – for example – some costs for defending the realm (as, if the UK were invaded, international students would be protected too) and also for subsidies to cultural organisations. Despite this, our work showed the costs to be around just 10 per cent of the benefits – roughly £2 billion of costs compared to £20 billion of benefits. This was even more positive than we expected when we began the project.
  2. Secondly, we broke the data down by parliamentary constituency. Because the data on the addresses of international students is imperfect, we made no claim that our numbers were absolutely and precisely accurate at the constituency level but we were able to provide indicative figures and to show that every constituency benefits.

We naively assumed this research would help persuade the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to recommend a warmer welcome for international students (as in other countries) so that the UK could start recovering some lost ground. The sort of changes we envisaged were the removal of students from the official target for reducing net inward migration.

We were hopeful change would occur because:

  • our research was the single most detailed study submitted to the MAC;
  • it was widely quoted by many influential bodies in their own submissions; and
  • the Home Office tends to listen to the MAC more than other voices.

But, weirdly, when the MAC report appeared, it referred to our study mainly in relation to the healthcare costs of international students. This was an area on which we undertook no original research of our own but merely quoted some fairly old official data.

Meanwhile, our original work on the net financial contribution of international students by parliamentary constituency was ignored even though it was more on point than other submissions. Given the MAC chose to bat away such evidence, it is perhaps unsurprising that their processes and final report were roundly condemned – criticism that has rebounded like a boomerang to damage the reputation of the MAC itself.

The issues have not gone away. Wherever Brexit goes next – whether the UK ends up with the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal or remaining in the EU – migration will continue to be a major political issue. Indeed, we are awaiting the publication of an immigration white paper and new legislation and leaks about this filled the weekend’s papers.

So we are ending the year how we started it, with a focus on the flows of students across national boundaries.

That is why, in place of Christmas cards, HEPI, Kaplan and London Economics have written to every single one of the 650 Members of Parliament to remind them of the positive data for their own constituency.

This seems a fitting task for the end of the year for three reasons.

  1. The battles for a better regime for international students will go on in the rest of 2018, through 2019 and after.
  2. Higher education is, at its best, made up of communities of scholars and students working across boundaries – across disciplinary boundaries, across teaching and research and, yes, across geographical boundaries.
  3. Parliamentarians have had so much to contend with this year that they are unlikely to have remembered all the details of our earlier work.

The numbers in each letter relate to individual constituencies but they sometimes help to explain the position of individual MPs on issues affecting international students. The constituency that we calculated brings the most financial benefits to the UK from the presence of international students is Sheffield Central, which is represented in Parliament by the Labour MP Paul Blomfield.

He has perhaps done more than any other Member of Parliament to raise student issues – he is the founder and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Students, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students and Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Universities.

Meanwhile, the numbers for the constituency of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, are around double the average, whereas those for the constituency of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, are only around half of the average because there is on major higher education presence in Maidenhead.

This may go some way to explaining their relative positions on how far the UK should go in seeking to provide a positive environment for students from other countries. Imagine if the Prime Minister had spent years popping on and off the campus of a local university as a constituency MP before becoming Home Secretary. Who could doubt it would have left her with a more positive attitude towards the sector?

Finally, HEPI, Kaplan and London Economics hope to add further to the evidence base on international students in 2019. So watch this space.

Onwards and upwards!

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