What Role Should Overseas Students Play in British Society?


Globe of flags_optWhat role should overseas students play in British society? According to some, a very limited one. At least the home secretary would like overseas students to exit as quickly as at all possible, once they have completed their degree programmes. The Telegraph explains:

The Home Secretary has warned that 600,000 foreign students will come to the UK by the 2020s. Theresa May disclosed the figure as she defended plans to expel non-EU graduates at the end of their courses. The warning was sounded after business figures, including Sir James Dyson, questioned government plans to force graduates to leave Britain at the end of their courses in order to apply for new visas. The Home Secretary insisted that changes to the immigration system would still ensure the ‘brightest and the best’ are welcomed into the United Kingdom. However, she said the new rules were necessary because surveys had shown that every year tens of thousands of students were staying on after their courses had finished.

The home secretary’s proposal seems to have been met with a largely negative response, and there is currently no indication that it will be incorporated into immigration policy. Nonetheless, it merits attention. On the one hand, it reveals much about the state of public debates on immigration policy in the UK. There is much to be said about the ostensible scapegoating of foreign students in the current government’s anti-immigration rhetoric. (Note, for instance, the image of the hardline ‘crackdown’ invoked by the Telegraph through its use of terms such as ‘expel’ or ‘force.’ Or consider the implications of the image Theresa May conjures of hundreds of thousands of foreign students flooding the country if their movements are not tightly controlled.) I am more interested, however, in the ways in which May’s proposals have been criticised. The Telegraph points out:

Mrs May’s move – designed to appeal to right-wing voters – has been attacked by Labour, who said that foreign students bring ‘billions of investment’ to Britain. […] The Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned that the public debate about immigration was in danger of damaging the ‘economically valuable’ recruitment of overseas students to the UK. The inventor and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson warned that Mrs May’s policy is a short-term vote winner, which would harm the country’s economy. ‘Give them our knowledge, allow them to develop their own, and permit them to apply it here on our shores. Their ideas and inventiveness will create technology to export around the world,’ he wrote in an article.

Similarly, a critique of May’s proposal in The Guardian argues: “Yes, these students net Britain nearly £7bn each year. But sending them home with new technology developed here presents very good value to our competitor nations. Instead, our education system should be a tool to import the world’s greatest minds. And, most importantly, to keep them here, so our economy – and our culture – benefits.”

These arguments reveal a strikingly limited vision of the role foreign students play in British society. They reduce overseas students’ contribution to scholarship, academic life and British society at large to its economic value – the £7bn they bring into the country, the negative impact of letting them take their knowledge and skills back to ‘competitor nations’, and the positive economic consequences of keeping them here. ‘Culture’, whatever this may mean, is tellingly mentioned as a mere afterthought. In sum, the cited criticisms of Theresa May’s proposal shed a stark light on the degree to which public debates about higher education now revolve around purely economic arguments. Through recent shifts in government policy, changes in universities’ organisation and governance, and a transformation of the language we use to discuss academic labour, universities are being thoroughly commercialised and reduced to the role they play in generating economic profits and skilled workers.

When discussing overseas students’ contribution to British academia, important arguments could be made about the ways in which they enrich scholarship by bringing with them new and different intellectual traditions. Important arguments could be made about the ways in which overseas students contribute to turning British universities into unique cosmopolitan spaces.

Multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are, unfortunately, not popular ideas these days, and scholarship is coming to be seen merely, as James Dyson puts in The Guardian, in terms of its capacity to “create technology to export around the world.” Is this really the way forward for British higher education? The ways in which students of diverse national and cultural origins encounter each other and learn together at British universities are much richer than public debates let on. The rich and diverse ways in which students and scholars of diverse national and cultural origins collaborate at British universities belie the economic reductionism currently fashionable in public debates about higher education. It seems high time for this to be acknowledged again in mass media, politics and public policy.


Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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David Walker

OK, here’s an argument (copiously citing journalism). Where’s the social science? What are the dimensions (or analytic basis) for ‘national tapestry’. Can the asserted contributions of overseas students be quantified or demonstrated in a rigorous way? Where’s the counterfactual against which the argument can be clarified.
It’s good that social scientists should take part in public debate but isn’t it important that they bring authority, based on data and analysis?