If Britain is to make success of Brexit we will need to fully exploit all our advantages. Thankfully these are many. We remain leaders in the Commonwealth, leaders in Nato and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, our military has a reach unmatched by our European partners and our ties of association and history give our diplomatic services near unrivalled reach.
Yet perhaps the most powerful weapon in Britain’s arsenal of soft power is the English language. English is the language of international diplomacy, trade and commerce; it is this which will be our most invaluable asset in forging new international relationships, and this which gives us our competitive edge.
We both come from different traditions within the Conservative Party, took different views on the EU referendum, and saw different outcomes in our respective general election battles; however, we are united in our view that the government must work tirelessly to exploit the advantage our language offers our country. Core to that advantage is the role we have as, until now, the destination of choice for international students.
In 2014 – 2015 some 943,200 international students were studying in Britain supporting around 300,000 jobs through direct and indirect spending amounting to a massive £17.5 billion contribution to the UK economy. That is before considering the subsequent export to their home countries, and nations around the world, of students who having studied here have an affection for our country and an admiration for the values of our liberal, tolerant society.
The respective seats we fought in June are very different – one on the south coast, one in the industrial midlands. Yet in common they have a university at their heart. Universities which drive innovation, provide a hub for businesses, support thousands of jobs and bring enormous cultural value to their communities and the country.
In both the referendum and general election we saw different outcomes, but our experience was shared in two respects: controlled immigration was an important issue and neither of us met anyone during those campaigns who raised international students in the context of controlling migration. Why? Because the British public understand what sometimes politicians don’t: students are visitors not migrants. Sadly, the inclusion of students in the net migration figures has brought student numbers into the near toxic immigration debate in Britain and it is being heard loud and clear overseas. Students, and more importantly the agents who place them, wonder if they are really welcome in Britain.
It’s time to make clear – Britain is open for trade, open for students, and open for business.
Theresa May should be lauded for her role in eliminating the bogus college as a route to residence in the UK – work which, can give us all confidence in the system. This is exactly why we welcome Amber Rudd’s review of the impact of international students on society and the economy. Policy must be based on empirical data and not windy rhetoric and this decision cannot come a moment too soon.
Other countries are seeing the opportunity and seeking to exploit it. Analysis of international education destinations to English courses (a vital feeder into higher education) shows that in 2014 the percentage change in enrolments was up 9.8 per cent in Australia, 13 per cent in New Zealand, 9.4 per cent in Canada, 10 per cent in the US and almost 17 per cent in Ireland. In the UK the number of non-EU citizens coming to study was down 17.2 per cent in 2016 from 2015.
Aside from assessable visa applications and in-country visa extensions what do all these countries do that differs from the UK? They exclude international students from their net migration figures unless they are permanent residents.
When Britain is rightly seeking new global relationships to bolster international trade beyond the EU, we are risking one of our greater global exports. Our university sector is a great British success story, being our seventh largest export industry, and the second biggest contributor to the UK balance of payments.
It should therefore concern us all that 41,000 fewer international students started a university course in the UK in September 2016 than the year before, 31,000 fewer from non-EU nations. That 20 per cent fall puts at risk billions of pounds of economic activity, supporting jobs not only in the higher education sector, but across the wider community as well.
And beyond the economic benefit, Britain’s place in the world is stronger as a result of our academic might. As of 2015, 55 heads of government across the world had received an education in the UK, walking embodiments of the reach of our culture, history and values.
The Conservative manifesto contained a commitment that “we will always ensure Britain’s world-class universities can attract international students.” To achieve this aim, and continue the success of the sector, we need the rhetoric to match the reality that Britain’s universities are open for business. For the home secretary’s review to have a chance of preserving and enhancing this aim we hope that its scope will extend to consider removing international students from Britain’s net migration figures.
A truly global Britain must maximise our economic might and our arsenal of soft power. There is perhaps no greater flag bearer to lead this charge than a British education.
This article was first published exclusively by The Times Red Box.
Owen Meredith is national chairman of the Tory Reform Group.
Conor Burns is Conservative MP for Bournemouth West and vice-president the Conservative Way Forward.