Many of the tabloid papers put out headlines and news stories that promote hostility to foreign immigrants, workers and students that help destroy Britain's traditional attitude of tolerance and damage the country's reputation abroad. The papers do this damage and fail to give balanced stories that put across the benefits as well as the negative side of immigration, or misleading negative impression. This includes the usually less sensationalist Metro which I complained about because of their front page for Friday 21 January.
Conservative MPs and the tabloids (and the innuendo from my own Union, the UCU) have complained about University places going to foreigners while all the British students who want one might not get a place. To be fair Metro and others have carried balanced debate about the pros and cons of going to University / gaining a degree, but they have failed to point out that the British students not getting places are generally not good students academically (nearly anyone with any grades can be given a place somewhere) and have ignored the benefits that foreign students bring to our Universities and to the education of all students. In the run up to the 2010 General Election there was a ratcheting up of hostile tone about 'bogus' 'foreign' students and 'fake colleges', encouraged by some Conservative and Labour politicians, and this has continued since. The Labour Government pandered to its tabloid audience in pushing through bureaucratic, costly measures aimed at 'bogus' students and colleges but applied to all and set their worn down small minded apparatchiks in the Borders and Immigration Agency as the attack dogs to view all foreign students as suspected criminals. They compete well with any internal security apparatus of any authoritarian state. UKBA appear unable to distinguish between dubious back street or above shop 'Schools of English' or 'Business Schools' and long established reputable Universities who have decades of experience in admitting genuine overseas students. Many of those students used to stay and contribute to the British economy. In one enlightened move the Labour Government did let students stay for a year to work and gain experience after graduating – generating taxes and goodwill for Britain. Now they are made to feel unwelcome.
Personally I believe that some Universities (it seems mainly in London) get the balance wrong and have too many overseas students, but in most Universities a mix of students is to the benefit of the experience for all. We need British students, 18 and 19 year old students, mature students, local students, traditional students who move to University, students who commute, other European students, 'foreign' students, students from a range of backgrounds. This diversity gives all students greater experience of different people, cultures and backgrounds which is part of what a traditional British University education is about. A few top Universities have too many overseas students and not enough British, they seem to be running like elite education big business and forgetting that British Universities should be primarily to provide a benefit for Britain (as well as contributing to the wider world) which is primarily to educate British students. The tabloid and Tory view is misleading and giving a distorted impression of British Universities to the public by pandering to prejudice while making foreign students who do so much to contribute seem unwelcome. Anyone would be horrified and appalled if English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish students, holidaymakers, or workers had to put up with such a barrage of hostility in another country. Of course this prejudice is not true of most people.
I wrote to Metro "I am really disappointed to see Metro resorting to such bigoted, misleading and ill-informed 'tabloid' style." There are far too many students at University and the Labour Government should have cut the numbers years ago. More places just misleads more young people who would be better off doing something else that they will get a high paying 'graduate' job (most of my students do but the odds are probably five to one against overall). Foreign students add to the experience of all students at University by making our Universities diverse interesting places. They also pay a lot in fees that subsidises British students. Each overseas student pays a lot of money to study in the UK and that helps pay for the education of British students. The headlines of the right wing tabloids (Conservative or Labour supporting they are all right wing) and hostility generated by the last Government, the Coalition one and the UK Borders Agency are damaging Britain's reputation for a warm welcome and tolerance and it is our Universities and British students who will suffer.
Incidentally, although I am hostile to career politicians, this issue is something that myself and the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, Luciana Berger, apparently agree on. Berger highlighted the positive economic benefits to Liverpool of overseas students in a House of Commons debate on Higher Education (Student Visas), 8 February 2011. (Thank you to TheyWorkForYou.com for this information). The fine sentiment expressed by Richard Bacon (South Norfolk, Conservative) in leading that debate is unfortunately not matched by Government policy. He was right to say that on behalf of ordinary people "There is not any desire to keep out those who will help us or those who want to study." Yet the tabloid writers and Conservative politicians pandering to them are not putting that message across.
I can directly testify to the worry and distress for individuals and the damage to Britain's reputation caused by the Coalition Government's continuation of a hostile Labour policy towards overseas students and workers. In just one University department I have seen several students (just the ones that have come to my attention) unable to start or continue degree courses due to UKBA paperwork (and our embassies and consulates abroad seem to likewise put undue bureaucracy in front of visibly genuine cases). That is education delayed or denied and income denied to Universities at a time when the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government is slashing their income. Due to the bureaucratic barrier the governments have made of visas I've been getting more students worried about visas than ever before and finding their education disrupted for no good reason. I also have several with severe family or personal circumstances meaning they are in financial difficulties and either cannot afford to stay here, or worry they will not be able to afford to take an extra year out, studying without attendance, and then come back. They worry that if they go they will not be allowed to come back. Many of these students have parents, grandparents and Uncles and Aunts who have studied in the UK and been proud to support this tradition as our friends. This goodwill is being destroyed. As one friend said it is crazy that our civil servants cannot distinguish between the 'Windsor School of English' in some grimy high street and the genuine Universities and colleges. It is British students who will lose out if this hostility is not overturned by reason and tolerance. Perhaps tabloid journalists do not value education for their children.
16 April 2011.