Emma Hope: Cameron overlooks our top export – degrees

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If I was a prospective university student, I'd be horrified at the Government's fee increases. I'd also be asking if the Government has got the balance right between what UK-based students will have to pay and the fees of foreign students. I suspect we're underselling one of our greatest assets. Academe is one of the few highly developed industries that Britain has left that remains admired and coveted by overseas students. In my own area, Arts and Design, Britain excels.

The chancellor of my old college, the Cordwainers, says that non-European students make up half the intake; only a quarter are from Britain: foreign students pay more, and the university needs the revenue.

Miho Yoshii studied at Cordwainers in 2003-4: of the 40 students in her year, seven were Japanese, two Chinese, one Korean, two American, one South African, 18 from France, Italy or Spain, with 10 British. In Katie Rose Whiting's year, in 2008-9, her 45 fellow students were from the US, Japan, Korea, India, or mainland Europe. Only five were British. Miho, who now runs our Japanese wholesales, had to work part-time to fund her one-year course. But other Japanese students, she says, had wealthy families who think it is good value to send them to the UK to study English and fashion.

Katie Rose, a British student who has produced a sell-out range of hats for Liberty, did only the part-time one-year shoemaking course at Cordwainers, costing her £1,000 as a UK student, because she still had a £12,000 loan to repay from her degree course (at new top rates, with interest, that would be £43,000).

David Cameron says that the fee increases will narrow the gap between fees paid by UK and foreign students, although I don't see why that is a good thing. Already some 14 universities are at risk. It could benefit both UK and overseas students if we expanded universities to admit more foreign students. If David Cameron's financial task force devastates our universities, there won't be any income from foreigners, because there will be no courses left. Quotas and import duty should be levied on foreign students just as, when we sell shoes to them, the Japanese charge us 50 per cent duty to protect their domestic industries.

Cannot the Government see that we have an industry in academe that has survived when, for example, most of our manufacturing and mining and ship-building have gone? Foreign students will not be scared off by paying a good deal more than what they are paying now: they are desperate to get into our colleges, partly because of the quality of these institutions and partly for the cultural allure and mind-broadening qualities that the UK still offers.

Cameron going to China to sell our luxury goods is one thing, but he could make as much money by selling the Chinese an education as a Rolls-Royce engine contract.

One of the things that makes me happiest is making and selling beautiful shoes. But I only learnt to do that by going to the Cordwainers College. I was struck by the desperation of a TV vox pop on Thursday night, after the vote on fees, when five or six young black and Asian boys said if they hadn't got places at uni they'd be doing drug deals. Putting people on to job seekers allowances because, with no qualifications, they can't get proper jobs, is no way to create a Big Society. The only thing that will get bigger are its problems.

Emma Hope is founder and designer of Emma Hope Shoes