Blaming people from abroad for Britain’s problems is incoherent and damaging. The Tories’ hostile policies towards international students in our universities must be fought, writes DIANE ABBOTT
RECENTLY the Tories have increasingly been trying to avoid the real problems we face by blaming foreigners for the country’s problems. For example, we have seen Jeremy Hunt tell the Tory Party conference that he was aiming for “self-sufficiency” in British-trained doctors before the end of the next parliament.
The Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced that companies could be made to publish lists of overseas workers, named and shamed for employing people, although the government then retreated on this.
Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, went as far as to argue that providing any guarantees for existing EU workers would be to “hand over one of our main cards” in the Brexit negotiations.
This should perhaps come as no surprise — after all, it is the team around Theresa May at the Home Office which infamously gave us the “Go home” vans during the election campaign that is now leading government policy.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is clear that we can and must reject this reactionary Tory agenda.
One area where this approach of blaming people from abroad for Britain’s problems is incoherent and damaging is the Tories’ hostile policy towards international students in our universities, which as well as being vital institutions for learning and human development are also increasingly important economic institutions.
Rudd used her speech at the Conservative Party conference last month to announce a crackdown on the number of overseas students coming to study, including different visa rules for “lower quality” universities and courses. There are fears this policy will use the government’s controversial new teaching rankings — expected to grade institutions “gold, silver or bronze” — to judge the “quality” of institutions, causing widespread concern in universities.
The main problem in this area — even before Rudd’s remarks — is that the Home Office insists on counting foreign students as immigrants.
This insistence also helps lead to the myth that immigration into Britain is out of control — a myth that was so heavily promoted by Nigel Farage and others during the EU Referendum campaign.
The facts are that there were 436,000 overseas students in the UK in 2014/15, comprising 19 per cent of the total number of students.
According to Universities UK, the umbrella organisation for vice?chancellors, overseas students bring more than £10.7 billion to the economy and non-EU international students make up 13 per cent of universities’ revenues.
University tuition fees in 2013-14 were in total £13.7bn. Because foreign students pay fees two or three times higher than the £9,000 maximum set for English students, overseas students contribute more than a third of that total.
If international student numbers are reduced, there will be a funding shortfall for universities. This implies either further government borrowing or increased fees for British-born students.
It is also estimated that their presence creates over a quarter of million jobs here. It is clear then that international students make us all better off.
Contrary to claims from some right-wing media outlets and Tory politicians that have been repeated ad nauseam for a number years, it is a myth that there are large numbers of international students who overstayed their visas and so contributed significantly to the breach of their immigration target.
Most students return home after study. In 2014/15 under 6,000 students applied for a Tier 2 visa, applicable to non-EU students who wish to work here. An unpublished report from the Home Office, drafted when Theresa May was home secretary, showed that the number of student overstayers is in fact tiny, just 1 per cent of the total. This makes no significant impact on the total immigration numbers.
Universities UK, the teaching unions, the National Union of Students and many local authorities representing university towns have made clear their stance on this issue and have urged the government to change course. Indeed Chancellor Philip Hammond recently suggested that counting international students as immigrants could be reconsidered, only for it to be reported that he was subsequently “slapped down” by number 10.
In terms of both public opinion and in the political debate, the government is clearly in a minority on this issue. Indeed, research shows that just 20 per cent of adults believe foreign students count as immigrants and 59 per cent oppose efforts to reduce their numbers.
As the writer and political economist Will Hutton recently put it: “Foreign students are key to our economic and intellectual life. Let’s welcome them.”
Labour believes international students are welcome here and we should amend current data to exclude international students from the official Home Office Migration Statistics.
Moreover, we need to stand up firmly against the politics of anti-foreigner distraction across the board and focus our energies on attacking the real problem, namely ideologically driven austerity.
Targeting international students, migrant doctors and forcing businesses to publish lists of foreign workers will create division, increase tensions and only make us poorer. It will not work. It will be catastrophic for our trade, for public services and for our economy.
Diane Abbott is the shadow home secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.
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