Older readers will remember the ‘Brain Drain’, when media and politicians panicked about the number of clever people leaving the country for a better life abroad. Nowadays the Tories, and especially Home Secretary Suella Braverman, are worried about the number of clever people who want to come here instead to study at our universities. Why? Because it pushes up the immigration figures.
For years the Tories have been banging on about immigration as if it is a bad thing, unless the immigrants are filthy rich oligarchs that is. Oligarchs are in short supply since Russia invaded Ukraine. But the supply of foreign students has been steadily increasing for years and countries compete to attract foreign students because they bring in a lot of money. Our top universities would go bust without them. Overall they contribute over £40 billion a year to the economy.
The Tories are obsessed with bringing immigration down to appease the racist vote, even though immigration is not a serious concern for most voters. But targeting students makes no sense at all. Most of them leave after completing their studies. The ones that apply to stay are highly qualified to make a lasting contribution to the economy. Even though the absolute numbers are increasing, Britain’s share of the total has already decreased from 10 to 8 per cent, behind the USA and Australia.
This has led some in the Cabinet to push back against Braverman’s attempt to severely restrict the number of foreign students and their dependants from coming here. Not only does it damage the economy. It also helps to foster a negative image of Britain in precisely those countries where Brexit Britain wants to negotiate new trade deals.
So the latest restrictions are not as severe as the rabid right of the Tory Party, the ones who turned up in force for the recent National Conservatism conference, would like. But they still make no sense at all. At the G7 meeting in Japan there was a lot of talk about China’s threat to global stability and security that was endorsed by Sunak. This really amounts to a threat to western, and particularly US, dominance of the world, which has mainly created stability for bankers, billionaires, fossil fuel companies and arms dealers at our expense. It was followed up with stories of the threat to Britain from Chinese infiltration of our universities, where Chinese students are the largest foreign contingent.
Consequently, universities are being urged to reduce their dependence on Chinese students and encourage students from big spenders like India and Nigeria to choose Britain. Now here’s the rub. Chinese students are the least likely to bring their families with them to university in Britain, in part because Beijing does not want its brightest and its best to jump ship and make their fortune here. So having your family at home is an incentive to return.
But around the world many students, particularly women, would not be able to come here to study if they left their dependants behind. After China, the countries who send us the largest numbers of students are also the ones who are most likely to want to bring their dependants with them. Places like, you’ve guessed it, India and Nigeria!
This contradiction between prejudice and pragmatism is ripping the Tories apart and exposing the extent of the brain drain within their ranks. When Tory MP Miriam Cates complained about foreign students coming over here and ‘consuming our knowledge’, it revealed not so much a brain drain as a brain drought. We now need Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to take advantage of this latest Tory debacle by speaking up for foreign students and their dependants, and good old fashioned British values like hospitality, multiculturalism and anti-racism. Watch this space!