As the Conservatives under Theresa May – despite fervently supporting six years of austerity – seek to present themselves as in touch with the working class, one of the easiest methods as always is to go on the attack. And in the lead up to the Conservative conference the right-wing press pushed a line which seems set to become a mainstay of Tory rhetoric, displaying a strident anti-intellectualism which equates any form of sense or learning with the ivory-tower machinations of a dismissive liberal elite.
Knowledge is power, and the Tories don’t want people to have any. We already live with a post-factual politics, where incendiary appeals to the basest of emotions do all the work that earnest argument and detailed policy making doesn’t have to. And the past few weeks have seen continued attempts to herald the supposedly robust British economy, with attention drawn to the strong performance of internationally-focused firms on the FTSE, disregarding the sorry state of wages and the plummeting pound.
Universities however are already feeling the post-Brexit vote financial chill. Currently the EU funds British research institutions to the tune of about £1 billion a year, making up for the substandard level of Britain’s own national research budget. In some cases the EU provides British universities with up to 15% of their overall income. But the future of this funding is uncertain as Britain negotiates its way out of the EU, with the government declining to guarantee to cover any shortfall.
Such uncertainty is having an impact on the quality of research universities conduct and produce. British researchers are being dropped from collaborative projects based on the worry that they will become a financial liability. European academics and support staff are inevitably questioning their own circumstances, as the government continues to regard their right to live and work as nothing more than a bargaining tool. And EU students will surely think twice about applying to courses in a country which offers them few job prospects, going out of its way to make them feel resolutely unwelcome. There are presently around 125,000 students from other EU countries studying at British universities, who contribute £3.7 billion to the British economy, and create a total of 34,250 jobs across the UK.
The likely loss of EU funding and the associated effects of Brexit place even more emphasis on the international intake. Whereas EU students pay the same tuition fees as British nationals – currently set at £9,000 per year for most – international students typically pay between £15,000 and £25,000 per year for access to the same courses. More than EU students, they spend £3.24 billion on tuition fees alone, contributing a total of £7.3 billion to the British economy. And beyond their vast financial contributions, just like EU students they are an asset to Britain’s intellectual and cultural life, carrying no discernible downside.
Government estimates on the number of international students who stay beyond the expiration of their visas appear to be deliberately inflated and obscure. Upper postulations suggest that as many as 100,000 students stay on after the end of their courses, but it is unclear in what form and for how long. Subtracting those who stay legally – whether finding work, engaging in further study, or marrying – estimates on those who ‘overstay’ range from 1,500 to 30,000, but these numbers are based on a few questionnaires handed out in airport departures. On the other hand it is impossible to quantify the benefits to Britain of a vibrant and globally-minded research sector.
Stricter visa regulations, an increase in tuition fees, and limits placed on the right to work post-study have combined in recent years to result in a drop in international student enrollment for the first time in decades. The number of international students entering STEM courses in the UK has fallen by more than 10%, and many postgraduate places are being left unfilled.
Yet it is these international students, so vital to British universities as they struggle for funding, who seem ready to bear the brunt of the ever more restrictive measures set out during the Conservative conference by Theresa May’s successor as Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. Rudd posited a multi-tier student visa system which would discriminate based on the perceived quality of each institution and course.
International students applying to ‘lower quality courses’ would face stricter entry rules, beefed-up English language tests, restrictions on the rights of their family members, and curtailed opportunities with regard to post-study work. Rudd lamented how the family members of international students – limited to partners and their dependent children, who are not entitled to state benefits, and must as an entry requirement prove additional financial support – are currently allowed to undertake ‘any form of work’. The implication is that in the future, such family members would only be allowed to enter Britain on the proviso that they remain unemployed or in the most menial and low-paid jobs.
Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s joint Chief of Staff, has previously pondered restricting the right to work post-study to international students who have attended Oxbridge or the Russell Group of universities. But the content of Rudd’s conference speech alone was condemned as ‘an act of madness’ and ‘spectacularly ill-informed’ by Paul Blomfied, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students.
The logic is that with fewer international students – whether as a direct consequence of Rudd’s new measures, or as prospective applicants look elsewhere owing to economic uncertainty and Britain’s tangible hostility to the outside world – many universities would lack resources, facing a decline in teaching standards and research output, having to increase tuition fees for British students in order to survive. To fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, economically, intellectually, culturally, and technologically, Amber Rudd and company want to impoverish the nation.
A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.