The General Election on 8th June presents a great opportunity for the Conservative Party to set its stall out as the only party that is truly open for business, and able to build the new international partnerships the UK needs to flourish post-Brexit.
One business sector that can be a significant contributor to our economy and soft power is education.
The UK’s universities and other higher education providers are among the best in the world and a UK education remains a gold standard for students from across the globe. The success of our education institutions is reflected in the economic contribution they make. The education sector is currently the UK’s seventh largest export industry and the second biggest contributor to the UK’s net balance of payments.
International students are a massive contributor to the sector. Not only do they bring huge economic benefits – generating £25.8bn a year for the economy and supporting over 200,000 jobs across the UK – they also make an enormous contribution to Britain’s soft power across the globe. As of 2015, 52 standing political leaders across the world had received an education in the UK, leaving the country with an appreciation of our culture, history and values.
However, while our competitors, namely the US, Canada and Australia, are forging ahead in this lucrative market, the UK is falling behind, with international student numbers in decline.
As the UK negotiates Brexit, it is now more important than ever to invest in our successful international industries and show the world that we are a nation that is outward looking and values people from across the globe. However, when it comes to the international student market, Britain is not ‘Open for Business’. A ‘Closed’ sign has been placed at our shop door, at the precise time when we need it to be held wide open.
How can we arrest this decline? A strong start would be to remove students from the net migration target. There is a huge array of support for the removal of students from across the political spectrum. From The Sun and The Times to the Guardian, from Liam Fox to Diane Abbott, consensual opinion favours removing students from the net migration target.
A wide array of cross-party groups have also called for the removal of students from the target, with the House of Commons Education Select Committee being the latest to advocate that position today.
The next step would be to develop a policy towards international students which enables the UK to compete on a level playing field with our international competitors, all of whom are fighting desperately for the international students who we are losing out on.
We need a tough visa regime that leaves no room for abuse, based on accurate data. It’s also important that we support all our institutions, not just Oxbridge and the Russell Group. With the global economy shifting, skills like software engineering and computer game design are as relevant as more traditional topics of study, so we need to ensure our innovative education providers are supported to prepare students for this new world of work.
The General Election provides a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party to demonstrate that Britain really will be open for business once we have left the EU. International students bring huge economic, cultural and diplomatic advantages to the UK and the Conservative Party needs to recognise that in the manifesto.