Scholars or Cash Cows? What Role Will Foreign Students Play in Post-Brexit Britain?


Cash cow cartoon
What does the cow say? Mooo-lah!

Britain’s EU referendum has destroyed the idea of European citizenship. A central ambition of the European Union has been the attempt to forge a shared sense of European identity, by allowing its citizens to move and live and work and marry freely throughout the EU’s 28 member states. In a part of the world with a long history of brutal wars and outbursts of nationalism in its most virulent forms, this is a remarkable achievement. It is also an achievement to which Britain has been curiously indifferent, its citizens well-documented suffering in two world wars notwithstanding. In any case, since June 23 2016, Britain has replaced shared European citizenship with “us against them” — in public discourse, in political rhetoric and in plans for post-Brexit government policy.

The consequences of this swift and brutal turnabout are keenly felt by many. This summer, for example, I attended a conference on transnational family justice hosted by the Sociological Review Foundation, Middlesex University and the University of Lancaster. Brexit was not on the agenda, but of course it still loomed large. One paper that stuck with me was Benedicte Brahic’s account of a French mothers’ group in the UK. Prior to Brexit, she explained, this had been a loose group that was all about mothering. Post Brexit, though, it turned into a haven for EU nationals who had suddenly found themselves symbolically cast out by a country they had thought of as their home.

Nehring Corporate bugThis is just one of many narratives about the loss of home and belonging I have heard since the referendum. It is also a rather mild one – I could have written about the European acquaintances who have been yelled at or threatened for looking foreign, speaking a foreign language in public. None of this has provoked a serious public debate about Britain’s position in the world, immigration and xenophobia. The destruction of EU citizenship does not feature in public debates and politics, the positive consequences of immigration are willfully ignored, and Britain’s media continue to amalgamate foreigners, asylum seekers, refugees and other newcomers under the label of “immigrant,” now synonymous with “undesirable.” And when supposedly progressive political figures attempt to address the future consequences of Brexit, this often involves either silence on immigration or suggestions that Britain might still somehow opt out of the EU’s freedom of movement while retaining its economic benefits – foreign trade without foreigners (1, 2). And then there are the deportation letters sent in error to EU citizens, the plans to stop EU citizens from settling in Britain after Brexit, and so forth (1, 2).

All this, of course, only has novelty value for EU citizens living in Britain. Foreign residents and visitors from elsewhere have long had to deal with the consequences of the government’s intentionally hostile treatment of immigrants, and the treatment of asylum seekers is often shocking in its brutality.

This nastiness does not go unnoticed, of course, and it raises questions about the extent to which British universities may continue to be an attractive choice for foreign students. Foreign students have been caught up in the British government’s anti-immigration campaign, in the context of false claims about students turning into illegal immigrants, the government’s refusal to exclude students from immigration statistics, and resulting measures designed to force students to leave the UK soon after the conclusion of their studies (1, 2). This raises important questions. Britain today struggles to offer hospitality to foreign visitors and residents; hostility rather than hospitality characterizes much of the public response to visitors from abroad. If Britain struggles to welcome foreigners, are foreign students still welcome? On what terms? As valued young scholars who have much to offer to Britain, intellectually, culturally and personally? Or as fee-paying customers who are temporarily admitted into the country by virtue of the fact that they pay lots more for a degree than their British classmates?

It is not difficult to suspect that the latter assumption might be true. Thus, a recent article in China Daily argues:

“Tougher visa policies, skyrocketing tuition fees and health charges are beginning to deter international students from studying in the United Kingdom. And the gloomy job market – especially for fresh graduates – adds to concerns about their decision to study in a country that is increasingly viewing overseas students as “cash cows”. The non-European Union students I spoke to here in London unanimously pointed to one name as the culprit for the tightened rules: Theresa May. […]

Unlike the United States, the UK lacks the tradition of large-scale university/department-funded financial aid programs. Such a downside may push prospective candidates away from British universities and toward their counterparts around the world, a marketing specialist at the British Council told me. Being charged higher fees indicates that students are stereotyped as wealthy. But that doesn’t translate into better employment prospects. If anything, it makes them worse, because they have to narrow their search down to companies with a Tier 2 visa sponsor license. […]

Such apathy toward foreigners also extends to tourist visa application. Prices for translating bank statements at the UK visa service center in Shanghai, compulsory for tourism visa application, have jumped from 75 yuan ($12; 11 euros) per copy to 75 yuan for each page in the past eight months. Even though London attracted the largest number of international tourists last year, there is a risk of creating the negative perception that foreigners are not welcome in the UK.”

British universities will have much to do to counter such negative perceptions. Their response may be complicated by a further problem: As Britain’s universities have come to regard themselves as businesses, they also have adopted the corporate world’s penchant for marketing and public relations-driven modes of public communication. University websites have become glossy advertising operations, tone of voice policies designed by PR people regulate how academics may or may not speak, and the creation and maintenance of a ‘brand’ trumps a lot of the concerns that used to motivate academic labour in the past. PR is powerful, but it is also easily identified as cynical, disingenuous, fake – all shine and no substance.

Consider, for instance, the extent to which the endemic use of PR and ‘spin’ in politics has contributed to contemporary disenchantment with politicians. Therefore, a PR operation is unlikely to be enough to convince doubting students as to the merits of studying in Britain, and it may even exacerbate the assumption – perhaps true or perhaps unfounded – that its universities are all spin and all shiny pretence and all financial interest. To be clear, I do not wish to endorse the claim that British universities are treating their foreign students as cash cows. Some maybe do. However, this was not my experience when I was a student in the country, and I am certain that none of the many British academics I know and work with treat their students like that. My point is that Brexit will force British universities to radically reconsider their approach to public communication, if they wish to retain the high numbers of foreign students that have long made them such uniquely diverse and lively places.


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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