There is a particular brand of thinking in the UK that has a petrifying view of the past. Not petrifying as in scary horror films, but petrifying as in to preserve in stone. Examples of this view are seen in the English public and popular press in the run-up to the Football World Cup. Where English football is concerned it is forever 1966, the country expects nothing less than England to come home with the Cup (completely ignoring the evidence of past performances). Next month, the British public will vote in large number for a UK independence party in the European Elections, in the mistaken belief that the UK can float independently from the EU, completely ignoring late 20th century history and the evidence of international business activity that demonstrates that many of the UK’s large businesses owe their existence to trade with EU countries. These Little Englanders as I will call them (they tend to be led by pompous white middle-aged politicians and popular press journalists from England—not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) have this idea that we can petrify or preserve this view of the world in which our the UK can operate independently of the rest of world in a time warp of mid-20th century history that never really existed and certainly no longer exists in our contemporary globalised world.
Little Englanders have always been particularly hostile to immigration; the current focus being on immigration from Eastern Europe. This view ignores the historical evidence that the UK population is almost entirely composed of immigrants dating back to the Celts, Picts, Romans, Vikings and Normans. In the last few years Little Englanders in the press and politics have been trying to out-do each other with ever more stringent backward looking immigration policies that aim to shut the door to new immigrants, ignoring the undoubted economic benefits of an enhanced labour force or the demographic benefits of young adults coming to the country to balance the aging domestic population, preventing the sort of problems that affect Japan with its unbalanced and rapidly aging population.
The anti-immigration policies have been hard to implement. As a result the actual immigration figures continue to show an upward trend at odds with the tough political rhetoric. One category of immigration is easier to manage, students on temporary visas. Grasping the opportunity for a quick fix, politicians have introduced rules that have led to a sudden curtailment of student visas, at a stroke dealing a significant blow to the Higher Education sector in the UK. In 2013, for the first time since the mid 1980s the number of foreign students studying in the UK fell (Higher Education Statistics Agency 2014).
It is impossible to understand what made each individual student decide to study elsewhere, but with international student numbers increasing elsewhere we can anticipate that a combination of politically motivated visa restrictions, loud anti-immigration rhetoric and unwelcoming reception from the local population have all combined to dissuade some students from choosing to study in the UK.
The visa restrictions have hit one group particularly hard. There was a 50 percent drop in students arriving from India and Pakistan. News coverage in India of the murder of an Indian student in Manchester in December 2011 did not help, but the main problem is political not social. It has become almost impossible for Pakistani students to get a visa to study in the UK because of inflated concerns about supposed Muslim terrorists. This is despite the presence of large numbers of first, second and now third generation Pakistani immigrant families in the UK who have been resident since the 1960s. For both Indian and Pakistani students the withdrawal of the Post study work visa in April 2012 is the most decisive political change and the main cause of the significant drop in students from the Indian sub-continent.
The long term consequences for the HE sector are likely to be significant, if it is starved of funds from international students who cannot get past all the visa obstacles and end up going elsewhere to universities in other countries that are cheaper, more welcoming and with equal if not better University world rank – perhaps a French Business School or a Dutch University?
Faced with criticism from the HE sector about his government’s policies and their impact on universities, the Government Minister for Universities has been encouraging UK universities to build more branch campuses. For the government that means the universities still get the fee income, but the immigration figures are not pushed-up by foreign students coming into the country. If your family, friends or political sponsors have an interest in the construction or facilities management industries, even better – they might land a contract to build one of these international branch campuses.
But is this all just a bit too cynical? What about the positives? Falling student numbers might just encourage UK universities to try a bit harder to internationalise the student experience. Instead of treating international students as a source of easy income, they might have to get more serious about making those students welcome, internationalising their curriculum and providing international careers advice and ensuring that all students have some form of international and cross-cultural experience while they are at university.
Not all UK universities have the funds or the inclination to build international branch campuses but they may be more likely to forge meaningful partnerships with international institutions for research and teaching purposes if they are forced to get more serious about their international activities.
The transition to a more comprehensive model of internationalisation at UK universities will not be easy. A recent report published by OC&C Strategy Consultants (2014) like my own research (Warwick 2014) casts doubt on the managerial knowledge and experience of university management teams to negotiate their way through the international business environment associated with branch campuses and international contractual partnerships.
According to a recent report in the Times Higher Education Supplement (21/01/14) it is the Swiss universities that are the most successfully international in their orientation. The UK has some catching up to do. Running to catch-up will be very hard if the organisation’s shoes have been petrified – turned to stone by Little Englanders who want to preserve the UK in a fictional, no immigrant, no foreign students, non EU member form, a sort of fictional Downton Abbey era that never really existed in the first place.
Senior Teaching Fellow
Durham University Business School
Prior to entering academic life Philip spent 17 years working as a manager in the National Health Service (NHS) in Yorkshire and the north east of England. While still a manager in the NHS he studied for a part-time MBA at Durham Business School. In 2000, he joined the University of York, where he stayed until moving to Durham in autumn 2012.
Philip has two main areas of research interest and activity, public sector strategy and internationalisation and the scholarship of teaching and learning. His public sector strategy interest encompasses health service management and university management, in particular the international business in higher education, which is the subject of his doctoral research. Much of his work in the field of teaching and learning also relates to internationalising teaching and learning, making teaching and learning more appropriate and relevant to an international audience.
OC&C Strategy Consultants (2014) Opportunities Associated with the Internationalisation of UK Universities, a paper presented at Going Global Conference, London 6th March 2014.
Higher Education Statistics Agency (2014) Statistical First Release 197, available on line at https://www.hesa.ac.uk (accessed April 2014)
Warwick P (2014) The international business of higher education- a managerial perspective on the internationalisation of UK universities, The International Journal of Management Education, 12, 91-103.
Times Higher Educational Supplement (24/01/14) The 100 most international universities in the world (available on line at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news (accessed April 2014)