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Updated: February 18, 2014 17:47 IST

An idiotic own goal

Timothy Garton Ash
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The student question must be addressed on its own merits, not thrown into a demagogic hotpot marked ‘immigration’

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash

Stupid. Incoherent. Short-sighted. Cack-handed. Intrusive. Counter-productive. One thesaurus is not enough to describe the folly of the current British government’s policy towards foreign students. Working in a British university, I see its dire effects every day. Kafkaesque, intrusive bureaucracy. Everyone treated as a suspect. A high-flying Singaporean civil servant turned down on the grounds of inadequate language skills. (Singapore’s administration works in English.) Daughters and sons unable to go home to visit their aged parents because the dysfunctional U.K. Border Agency (UKBA) hangs on to their passports for months. Talented, idealistic students packed off back to India or America the day after their courses end, though they are exactly the kind of creative yeast we need in this country’s dough. And that’s not counting the ones who have been deterred from applying to study here in the first place. According to official Home Office figures, student visas from India were down 24 per cent in the year to the end of September 2013, on top of a more than 50 per cent decline over the preceding twelve months. Yet the British government has made relations with India one of its top external priorities.

Lumping categories

Why this folly? Because in January 2010, the then Conservative opposition leader David Cameron offered a careless, populist election promise to reduce net migration ‘to the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands’. He made a rod for his own back. ‘Net migration’ is those who enter minus those who leave, but the Home Office cannot ‘manage’ the number of British people who choose to leave the country in a given year. (Of course, the government could make Britain such an unpleasant place that millions decide to pack up and leave. Mission accomplished.) Moreover, this target lumps together all categories of ‘migration’: asylum, family reunification, EU and non-EU, for work and for study. The beginning of wisdom would be to distinguish between them, and especially to separate students from others. Since I am critical of British government policy, let me start by recognising the problem. In some political theorist’s hypothetical universe, it may be illiberal to control immigration, but in the real world, controlling immigration is a precondition for preserving a liberal society. Immigration is now among the top concerns of voters, in Britain as in most Western democracies. (Witness the recent Swiss referendum vote to limit the number of EU citizens entering Switzerland.) Fears are stoked to hysteria by irresponsible media and politicians, but the underlying concern should be taken seriously.

That being so, it is all the more incredible to find just how poor is the evidence on which these decisions are being made. The Home Office is only now introducing the procedures and technology to count the numbers leaving Britain. Along the way, it has lost track of hundreds of thousands of people, including many students or former students.

Only in 2012, did the International Passenger Survey (itself just a sample survey) start to ask those who are leaving whether they originally came here to study. Using the latest available figures, for the year to the end of June 2013, Dr. Scott Blinder, a specialist at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, calculates the difference between the number who arrived here to study and those departing who say that they originally came here to study at some 99,000. If that is even roughly right, then it is a huge chunk of the annual net migration figure, which for that period was 166,000 using the same survey source (and 182,000 on the official figure).

So if Prime Minister Cameron is to come anywhere near his ‘tens of thousands’ goal by the next election, in May 2015, he must either organise a St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the foreign students or, as his own universities minister has quietly suggested, acknowledge that students are different. For policy purposes, student numbers would then be treated separately, although they should be counted as regular immigrants if and when they stay on to work here. In his book The British Dream, the British author David Goodhart, an outspoken critic of past failings of British immigration policy, also suggests this.

The problem of ‘bogus students’ is serious, but ultimately a red herring. Even if we eliminate all fraud on student visas, we will still have to decide, as a country, whether we want to take in, say, 100,000 or 300,000 wholly legitimate students a year. So the student question must be addressed on its own merits, not thrown into a demagogic hotpot marked ‘immigration’ (a.k.a. bloody foreigners). Obviously, hosting foreign students has a cost. Many do stay on, even now. And we have a lot of them. In 2008, Britain had the second largest cohort of foreign students of any OECD country.

There are good reasons for this. Britain has the best universities in Europe, as well as some good further education institutions and language schools. It has historic worldwide connections. We speak English, and therefore also Globish. This brings a cost, but a larger benefit. In 2011/12, international students spent an estimated £10.2 bn on tuition fees and living expenses. The gains in terms of human connections, ways of thinking, cultural affinities and international goodwill are incalculable. A study done last year for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is also responsible for tertiary-level education, found that 84 per cent of former students retained links with Britain and 90 per cent had their perception of this country changed — for the better. Imagine if sometime Oxford students Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi and Manmohan Singh had all been thoroughly alienated by the kind of treatment that my foreign students are now routinely experiencing.

Altogether, this is a vital part of Britain’s soft power, along with film, literature, music, sport and the BBC. With all respect to our soldiers, diplomats and bankers, I don’t think they do more for Britain’s standing in today’s world than our actors, broadcasters, writers and academics. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is worth ten Royal Navy aircraft carriers. As we go deeper into the 21st Century, this soft power is likely to hold up better than Britain’s dwindling military and economic power. Oh, and by the way, we also educate human beings, citizens of the world. Should we apologise, in quadruplicate, to the UKBA?

(Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies, University of Oxford.)

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