Limiting international student numbers or cutting post-study work eligibility is not the way to become a science superpower, says Max Lu
February 13, 2023
As a former international student, I have experienced the transformational power of international education first-hand.
Born in a poor rural area of eastern China, I made my way to Shenyang’s Northeastern University, supported by a scholarship, after passing the national entrance examination at the age of 15. At 23, a doctoral scholarship took me to the University of Queensland in Australia, where I rose to provost before becoming vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey.
I am proud to be able to lead an organisation that makes a difference to thousands of students’ lives every year. In these challenging times, when international education is debated in public discourse and sometimes even weaponised for political expediency, it is worth reiterating that this is what international education is primarily about: not numbers or money.
As well as gaining a personal advantage, international students go on to make tremendous contributions to society and their communities, either in their host or home countries. Many become great ambassadors for their host countries. Whether enrolled on degree programmes or visiting on exchanges, they are our bridges to a more peaceful and harmonious world.
Despite the many recent challenges, including Brexit, the pandemic and geopolitical upheavals, UK universities continue to thrive as world-leading beacons of teaching and research, attracting students, staff and partners from all over the planet. Approximately 273,000 international first-year students entered UK higher education in 2018-19 – a 54 per cent increase since 2006-07, according to a 2022 report by Universities UK International and the Higher Education Policy Institute. International student enrolment now exceeds the target of 600,000 set in the government’s 2019 International Education Strategy.
This is just as well, since the 30 per cent reduction in the value of domestic tuition fees since 2012 means universities must now subsidise £1 in £4 of their research expenditure from international fees. Moreover, as we emerge from the pandemic and define new global relationships, universities play a vital role in realising the government’s ambitions for a truly “global” Britain.
I for one have felt grateful to be “back on the road”, travelling to many countries, from the US, Argentina and Brazil to Singapore and Malaysia to promote alumni engagement, fundraising, recruitment and partnerships. Each of these visits helped raise the global profile not only of Surrey but of UK higher education more generally.
In a world of 8 billion people, the UK cannot afford to work alone. International research collaboration is the bread and butter of higher education around the world because the very nature of modern science requires increasingly cross-disciplinary cooperation at scale. The prospect of the UK fulfilling the government’s ambition for it to be a “scientific superpower” is critically dependent not only on high levels of investment in research and development, but also on leadership of international mega-science projects and mobilising resources and teams to address global challenges. Time and again, this pooling of expertise and facilities leads to high-quality research outputs and impact – as measured, for instance, in citations.
Moreover, the more diverse the UK’s talent base becomes, the better the country will be able, in its own right, to make progressive, impactful change – including boosting prosperity. Data from the World IP Office illustrates that countries with a strong international community, such as the US, Switzerland, Singapore and the Netherlands, enjoy higher productivity growth.
Yet internationalisation does not happen without consistent political support. The government has created a fast-track global talent route for attracting the best minds to work in industry, business and university sectors. This is emerging as a great initiative, but we need to ensure that a conducive immigration policy is extended to those with practical skills equally crucial to innovation, such as technicians and engineers.
Yet, recently, we have seen a worrying rise of anti-immigration rhetoric and proposals to limit the number of international students studying in the UK. Late last year, the idea of capping their numbers was floated. More recently, a plan to cut the duration of post-study work visas from two years to six months has emerged.
Not only would such proposals reduce considerably the positive economic and intellectual contribution of overseas students, they also send an unhelpful, even unfriendly message to our international partners. Rather, we need to safeguard our hard-earned legacy and reputation as a welcoming nation for students and talent from around the world.
The good news is that the chancellor’s November Autumn Statement made clear that investment in research and development will be protected for the next three years. And, in January, science minister George Freeman reassured the sector that the government is continuing to push actively for UK association to the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme – and that in the event of no association, there will be significant investment in international collaborations and partnerships. While this commitment to a Plan B is reassuring, Horizon association would be the best way to continue our excellent collaboration with our European partners.
Of course, we need to be vigilant about national security issues and safeguard our critical sovereign capabilities and national interest; balancing the two needs requires robust policies and processes to regulate our internationalisation activities. But there is no question that those activities must be maintained and expanded, with appropriate funding, if the UK is to become a genuine global science superpower.
Max Lu is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey.