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International students – the silent engine in levelling up

  • 2 February 2022
  • By Ruth Arnold

Ruth Arnold is a Senior Advisor to Study Group and was previously the Director of Public Affairs at The University of Sheffield. 

In his Daily Mail opinion piece trailing the Levelling Up White Paper, Secretary of State for Levelling Up Michael Gove described the country and the economy in terms of a jet plane that needed to be firing on more than one engine. There was talk of ‘billions of pounds of investment that can turbo-charge growth in the North and Midlands’, of structural change, R&D and opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative around the Levelling Up White Paper was also one of a country freed to act in its own interests by Brexit – to rewrite procurement laws and invest council pension funds in local capital projects. And with a nod to the arguments that arguably delivered both Brexit and a Conservative majority, of ‘overcoming the metropolitan condescension that has meant working people and their values have been neglected and patronised’. 

But all this talk of engines took me back. For over 20 years I worked in Sheffield and spent much of that time on what was once the derelict wasteland of Orgreave, site of miners’ battles with the police and then of a remarkable labour of love between a university and industry to build what became arguably one of the most influential models of research collaboration and translation of the past two decades, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. 

Long before levelling up was fashionable, I was in the room or on the factory floor as industry, institutions and government combined resources and forces to meet commercial need and to win orders from the aerospace giants such as Boeing, Rolls-Royce and BAE systems. There was even funding from the EU, Objective One and then ERDF. 

For an English Lit graduate, I spent a lot of time looking at engines and learning about precision drilling and the properties of titanium. I explained to journalists and civil servants why a university research centre looked like a factory…indeed was a factory. I argued with colleagues inside the university about what it was right for a Russell Group university to build an apprentice training centre.

But I am also the daughter of generations of miners. I knew this work mattered and was entirely in the spirit of the mission of a university founded to improve local industries and put the highest quality of education within the reach of the child of the working man – aims listed on the factory posters appealing for penny donations from Sheffield workers over 100 years earlier. 

Yet what some misunderstand was that this was never a purely local endeavour. The most disadvantaged areas can’t just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They suffer from decades of underinvestment and industrial decline. The Matthew Effect is apparent everywhere you look: ‘For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Matthew 13:12 ESV). 

What suffering areas needed were the external interventions which would allow them to reverse this process. The involvement of a major company from whom local companies could win the orders that would allow them to invest in capital and train apprentices. The drive and purpose of leaders who could look beyond the local area in order to help it. And they needed universities and research to act as drivers of local benefit, applying their strengths and resources as an engine of change.

But how might that happen? Universities have faced real terms cuts in funding for years. And it isn’t only the problem of flat cash for teaching. Those who look with admiration at impressive buildings and labs forget that public resources for research and innovation only cover 3 out of 4 pounds of total costs. 

What makes up this gap and enables them to act, invest in buildings and drive local economies? The answer is the silent engine of U.K. higher education and every parliamentary constituency in the land: international students. 

This isn’t only a matter of a direct impact on the local economy, although research by HEPI makes clear every part of the UK is financially better off – on average by £390 per person – because of international students. In Sheffield Central their economic contribution is £290 million. It is also a question of the finances that sustain universities and the talented staff snd students who power U.K. university research and innovation. 

Think of government’s focus on British science – anyone who has been in a lab lately knows that it draws on the expertise of a global community. How many of those who worked on the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine in the Jenner Institute came to the UK as international students, postgrads or PhDs. Arguably no international students, no vaccine. Or no Graphene Institute.

And back to Sheffield, who remembers that the PhD student placed in a local company to work on industrial solutions which was the inspiration for the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre was the daughter of Vietnamese refugees? Or that the university’s flagship Diamond building which allowed it to double the size of the Engineering faculty was only possible because of the commitment to education of families in Beijing and Bangalore? 

The importance of international students and partnerships to the ability of universities to act with local purpose must not be silent in the levelling up conversation. Universities are already focus heavily on civic engagement and we have seen this amplified through the excellent work with the UPP Foundation led by Richard Brabner. 

But there is also a danger in our current policy debates, that we forget the role of that international in improving the local. To accept either/or thinking that universities must be either global or local is to allow for serious errors in understanding of how change is possible. As interesting as it may be to divide people into ‘somewheres’ vs ‘anywhere’s’ as in David Goodhart’s influential The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, it doesn’t reflect how change happens in practice. 

The lessons I first learned in Sheffield I now see replicate from Huddersfield to Teesside to Strathclyde. But I also see them inspiring the efforts of institutions such as Imperial College, determined to use its status as a driver of global innovation to transform parts of the capital which need its dynamism and purpose. 

Our institutions were often founded to make a difference to their towns and cities, acting with civic vision. That’s just as true in London as the North, as demonstrated by the superb work recently undertaken by London Higher to map the civic impact of London universities on the capitals many deprived communities. And as CEO Diana Beech has reminded us, London has the highest child poverty rates of any English region, not to mention the most diverse student population in the country.

In truth there isn’t a university in the country that isn’t committed to making a difference to its local community, especially the most disadvantaged. From student volunteering to the staff who act as school governors or undertake research with profound local impact, education is what makes levelling up possible and places an essential factor of production – knowledge and skills – into the hands of the people. 

But just as Orgreave needed funds, talents and the purchasing power of Boeing to transform its fortunes and to build a an industrial research campus that would be admired around the world, so levelling up will need universities to use all of its engines for change. And arguably the most important, the only real area of financial autonomy and growth, is the vital economic contribution to UK higher education of international students. This impact of this engine for change is too important to be silent. 

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