We should be encouraging students to enter Britain, not tightening our visa requirements

Strict visa rules are turning students away

From the introduction of tuition fees – many degrees now cost roughly £9,000 a pop – to the proliferation of courses, the changing university landscape has made education, along with the economy and health, one of the hottest political topics. One of the noteworthy changes is the sheer number of people now attending university, many of them international students.

Britain has some of the best universities in the world so it’s a popular destination for students from abroad looking for a world renowned educational experience. However, the increasingly malicious rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate has found its way into the world of the student coming from overseas.

International students contribute £10 billion a year to the UK economy according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Despite this, some students have been subject to humiliating treatment, such as having their fingerprints taken in order to monitor class attendance, and international students from certain countries having to report to a police station on arrival in the UK. With the prospect of such a demeaning existence, is the UK in danger of scaring off the world’s talent?

Each year thousands of students from around the world come to Britain to enrol in competitive degrees such as engineering, medicine, accountancy and law. My alma mater, the University of Kent, is known to have a sizable and lively international student presence, again with several of them studying sought after degrees. Yet many of the eventual graduates end up unable to find a job with some having to leave the country. Our rules are letting reams of talent slip away from us – the future engineers, the future barristers, the future medics – and they end up leaving Britain to contribute to competing countries. The sense of feeling unwelcome will probably drive prospective students to universities in the US and mainland Europe. How can we continue to be truly innovative when we have a foreign student void?

We are used to the public discourse around immigration: how the country and its services are buckling under pressure. So often when the word ‘immigrant’ is used, certain images are conjured up. Indeed, an Ipsos MORI study found that most people were likely to think of asylum seekers rather than students, when they heard the word ‘immigrant’, demonstrating that international students were not formerly scrutinised within the wider immigration debate. However this is now changing.

Quips about foreign students being leeches on the system taking the entry level jobs from young Brits are becoming commonplace, though it is questionable how true this is. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has changed its rules and regulations several times already with regards to students coming from overseas and despite their input into the UK economy, the NUS still assert that international students are the most heavily regulated group with regards to visa rules.

Students that have invested thousands into studying at UK universities are suddenly deemed of no use when it comes to finding a job. The requirements for certain roles foreign students apply for give off an implicit message that they are no longer welcome – that their money was once good enough to pour into the university’s coffers but their talent is now of no use to UK employers. An additional mistake being made is that international students are often the children of influential people back in their native countries, many of these being emerging economies. We may be unintentionally damaging important links with these growing markets. As a society we should not allow this to happen, but if we do, we can kiss goodbye to an extra chunk of talent.

It is understandable that in uncertain economic times, we should look to provide for young British people; however foreign students boost UK innovation and their presence is probably one of the ways to revitalise economic growth. The cross pollination of ideas, not to mention the cultural exchanges that occur, are all positive impacts of having international students in a society. Draconian visa rules could potentially hinder our celebrated innovation, but also Britain’s international standing as a premier destination for higher education.

Follow Winifred on Twitter here

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