Saturday, July 3, 2010

Overseas students are an opportunity, not a threat

Judging from the swathes of explosive comments underneath Nazry Bahrawi's article championing the merits of the Chevening scholarship for international scholars earlier this week, it's clear that most of those commenting do not understand what a boon international students are to this country.

As an international student myself and an editor of a lifestyle website for expats living in London, I know a thing or two about overseas students. The first is that they are cash cows.

At City University's international journalism master's programme, 120 students from 40 different countries coughed up a cool £13,000 each for tuition this year alone. That's twice the price of the domestic newspaper course, and translates into roughly £1.5m from one programme at one university. That's a lot of dough; in fact, all tallied up, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants reckons that fees from international students generate between £5.3bn and £8bn every year. That's before even considering the benefits to the rest of the economy, generated by cash spent on food, housing, travel and entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment, that is another domain in which internationals' wallets overfloweth. To be frank, expat students are far less prone to cheapskatery than their UK-domestic counterparts, in my experience. Admittedly, this is a broad-brush statement and there are exceptions, but if someone can afford – through long-term savings or otherwise – a pricey postgrad course, then they can most likely also afford a few pints, meals and days out.

Another factor contributing to international students' relative budgetary liberalism is that there's a greater sense of carpe diem among international students; a sense that there is inherent value in meeting and learning from people from other cultures and hell, why not celebrate? It's this joie de vivre that stimulates the UK economy far more than most really care to admit and it's this reason that a cap on eligible, serious and self-supporting international students is an awfully backwards idea.

As for the question of scholarships, it might be tempting to cut nonessential programmes such as the Chevening in an attempt to shore up the finances of this skint-or-swim country, but it's programmes like this one that ensure Britain attracts the best and the brightest – not just the richest and the whitest – to study here. They enrich the UK's academic and scientific environments while building and mending diplomatic ties with the rest of the world. And, for the relatively small amount of £15.5m, it's a win-win.

There's no reason to go into great detail again about why overseas students want to come to the UK so badly. Suffice it to say, though, that despite the chronic streak of self-deprecation amongst Brits, the UK is a damn good place to study and work; it is certainly not broken in this regard.

Across every discipline, anyone who is anyone filters through the UK at one point or another, providing unprecedented opportunities for research and networking for students and academics as well as professionals. This in turn contributes to a lush environment of collaboration and idea sharing that ultimately results in more projects and ventures bringing prestige back to the UK. To continue this fruitful process, the knowledge economy needs to be nurtured by people and ideas from all corners of the world. Again, it's win-win.

But don't get me wrong, I am certainly not advocating a policy of free love at UK borders. The country should not lift the gate for every student – especially those without a formal offer of admission from a university or without sufficient funds to support themselves during their course of study. That's just common sense. But the xenophobic paranoia that runs rampant on comment forums when this subject is discussed is anything but sensible. International students bring in money, innovation and good diplomatic connections, three things this country needs desperately right now.

Granted, as a Canadian, I've got a different perspective on immigration than the average Brit might. After all, Canada needs its immigrants. The "True North strong and free" was built on immigrant labour shaping the landscape with only bare hands and a hope for a better life. Even today, without immigration, the negative birth rate would empty out our sparsely populated country faster than a Gretzky slap-shot. As Canadian author Margaret Atwood said of her home country: "We are all immigrants to this place, even if we were born here."

The UK could take a line or two out of this philosophy. Immigrants and international students are an opportunity, not a threat. They don't intend to scoop up every British job that could have gone to a British worker; that's not their secret and sinister mandate. What they do hold are immense resources – financial and otherwise – that will help, not hinder, the UK's economic recovery while stimulating the economy of knowledge too. If that's not a win-win, I don't know what is.

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