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Universities UK report finds strong public support for international student migration

August 23, 2014

Today Universities UK, which represents higher education providers in the UK, today released a report, based on workshops and national polling, which reveals that there is strong public support for international student migration, and that the public understands the economic and educational benefits brought to Britain by those who come here to study. Mark was asked to write the foreword to that report in his capacity as Chairman of Conservatives for Managed Migration, a group calling for a rethink on government policy over migration.

Foreword

Here in the United Kingdom we are rightly proud of our world class universities.

Our global reputation for higher education excellence helps to explain why the UK is such an attractive place for people to study.

Almost 300,000 international students came to our universities in 2012–13. Only the United States matches the strength of this appeal to students from around the world.

A global brand such as this is also fantastic news for our economy. Top international students and academics keep our universities at the cutting edge of global knowledge, technology and innovation. The diversity they bring to campus life enriches the educational experience for British students and helps build strong links with other nations for decades into the future. They bring with them an estimated £7 billion in income, injecting substance into the UK’s economic recovery. What better example of a true British success story in what the Prime Minister has called the ‘global race’?

However there is a twist in this tale. The sheer strength of the UK’s higher educational offering means that international students make up a significant proportion of those counted in the official immigration statistics. This often comes as a surprise to those who are not specialists in this subject. After all, few people have students in mind when they express concern about the impact and number of migrants coming to our shores.

This creates a dilemma when it comes politically to managing the tricky minefield of migration. Any uplift in the number of international students means greater scientific, economic and cultural benefit to Britain. Yet it also spells trouble for politicians trying desperately to cut headline immigration figures. A mark of our success therefore acts simultaneously – and perversely – as a badge of failure.

It need not be this way. This comprehensive report shows that students are among the most popular migrants with the public, in spite of their representing one of the largest inflows of people coming to the UK. Even the majority of those sympathetic to the overall aim of reducing migration believe that student migration is a good thing, both economically and culturally. So long as students are genuine, the public believes this issue should be kept apart from immigration policy.

At a time when Britain is seeking to promote industries that can take advantage of global growth driven beyond Europe, our higher education sector should be challenged and supported to increase our share of the rapidly expanding international student market. This is why it was always a mistake to include the student migrant flow within a target to reduce total immigration numbers.

Politicians are rightly expected to engage with public views and anxieties about immigration, and the government has admirably done so. It will, of course, be an important election issue for all political parties as we approach the 2015 General Election. But it is time politicians made the case that there are different types of immigration.

This important survey shows that the public is quite capable of making those distinctions and in fact has a pragmatic and nuanced view about how to select the kinds of migration that best reflect our nation’s interests and values.

There is a broad public consensus that international students are good for Britain: people welcome the income they bring to these shores; they are happy to see the skills they have gained here help UK firms rather than our international competitors; they are rightly anxious when they see other English-speaking nations aggressively target the lucrative international student market at the expense of British universities.

I very much hope that this report will reassure political parties in advance of next May that the public respects those politicians who put forward a mature and rational case for a managed migration policy.

Above all this is great news for those of us who want our world class universities to thrive and compete internationally. A welcoming approach to international students can clearly be seen to reflect British public opinion, rather than challenge it.

MARK FIELD MP

Chairman of Conservatives for Managed Migration