We like to pride ourselves on having so many “world-class” universities – punching far above our global weight. But we also like to be “little Englanders”, fearful of being swamped by immigrants and desperate to rush for the European exit.
The truth is we can’t have it both ways. Either we are internationalists, or we are xenophobes. It is no good arguing these are different people – enlightened liberals on the one hand, and the rightwing mob on the other. The same British (well, English) people who have displayed a hungry appetite for higher education are turning against Europe and even flirting with Ukip.
The most immediate challenge for universities is the chilling visa regime introduced by the coalition government but quietly and cowardly supported by Labour. It is a challenge because, even ignoring our “world-class” universities, UK higher education is among the most international in the world.
Our colleges and universities have more than 400,000 non-UK students, getting on for one in five of the total. These students contribute billions to higher education directly through their fees, and billions more to the economy through their spending (and, it is always argued, billions more in terms of future business and geopolitical influence).
But non-UK students – both from elsewhere in the EU and further afield – contribute even more to the academic vitality of our universities. Their presence sustains subjects that might otherwise wither, notably in science and engineering. They make up a large proportion of postgraduate students. In some areas a majority of PhD students are foreign-born.
The proportion of international staff is also high – 16% and double what it was two decades ago. As the (supposedly) best-and-brightest Brits have turned to the City, the foreign-born have stayed true to their scientific and scholarly vocation. They work as early-career researchers but also populate the senior ranks. There are many examples of latter-day Namiers, Poppers and Wittgensteins.
It would be interesting to know how much of the world-beating research was undertaken by and how many of the highly cited publications were produced by people born outside the UK. If we had to depend solely on homegrown talent, our universities would certainly be much diminished on the world stage.
Some politicians weakly argue international students should not count against immigration totals – but do nothing in the face of supposedly irresistible populism. Ukip bizarrely even argues that, once the EU riffraff have been kicked out, there will be room for highly skilled immigrants from the rest of the world.
But even if international students receive special treatment, it might not make much difference. The UK would still offer a hostile face. The chilling effects of anti-foreigner phobia would remain. Recently, having agreed to act as an external examiner for a PhD, I was asked to send a scanned copy of my passport. Such are the anxious and angry times we live in.
Exit from Europe would also be a disaster for UK higher education, even if too many university leaders adopt unjustifiably condescending attitudes to our European peers. Often they base their condescension on the UK’s global share of “top” universities, without inquiring too deeply into the extent that preeminence depends on academic firepower provided by imported talent.
To the extent that UK students are outwardly mobile at all, it is often to the rest of Europe. If routes to Europe were constricted, our provincialism would intensify. The UK gets far more than its share of European research funding, which would end if we left the EU (just as an independent Scotland would have had its share of research council grants scaled back). The rest of Europe too would lose from the withdrawal even into sulky internal exile by one of Europe’s greatest nations, us.
But the threat to higher education from the current wave of nativism is not just confined to bottom-line reductions in income, an attenuation of academic talent or restricted access to European research money, although all these would threaten the UK’s much-prized global preeminence. The threat is not just to our body but our soul.
It is through education, which in the 21st century must include higher education, that we have the best chance of taming our fears of “otherness” and creating globally inclusive communities. It is through internationally alert universities that the urgent issues of our age – conflict, the agonies of modernisation, disease and wellbeing, climate and environment – can be understood and, once understood, tackled.
Maybe the success of our universities has owed more than we care to admit to the character of post-imperial British society – those easily derided qualities of common sense, fair play and compromise. It may be a tough job to maintain open universities in a society that is closing in on its fears.
Peter Scott is professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education
Immigrants, UK universities need you
Posted on November 10, 2014