Bishop of Winchester highlights positives for UK of international students

Universities have always been centres of wisdom and learning: places filled with global-minded people, where political, cultural and geographical boundaries are transcended for the common good. The value of studying abroad is unquestionable. How would scholarship look today if St Augustine had been unable to complete his studies due to visa complications? Would we have heard of Thomas Aquinas if he had been turned back at the French border? Finally, would,

“the world is everything that is the case”,

still be the case if Ludwig Wittgenstein had been asked to produce a study permit on arriving in Britain?

Perhaps it is natural that these figures to come to mind to me, a bishop in the Church of England and a member of a global community of faith. The point I wish to emphasise especially is that in a modern world, where talk of globalisation and internationalism is constant, our universities should be at the centre of co-operation between nations, whether that be through scientific, artistic, intellectual or cultural endeavours, all of which help us to develop our understanding of the world around us and of our shared humanity.

There are more than 400,000 overseas students in the UK—almost one in five students. However, it is not simply a matter of numbers, it is also about the positive impact which international students have on the communities in which they study. I am sure many of your Lordships are aware that in a recent survey conducted by Universities UK, eight out of 10 respondents agreed that international students have a positive impact on local economies and towns in which they study. Of those asked, 75% said that they would like to see the same number, or more, of international students in the UK. That figure jumped to 87% once information on the economic benefits of international students was provided. Although we acknowledge the economic and soft-power arguments, we believe that allowing institutions to speak the common language of learning is a higher priority in relation to university education. After all, the best universities are international communities of scholars. Given this tremendous contribution, I urge the Government to maintain the international quality that is still found in UK universities.

However, there are some early indicators of concern. For example, international student numbers are beginning to fall. The number of Indian first-year enrolments at UK universities fell by 10%—from 11,270 in 2014 to 10,125 a year later. We would hope to see EU students take up this additional capacity but, unfortunately, one of the Oxford colleges I visit has seen a 9% drop in EU student applications this year already. Another college said that it could not exist without them. A decline in the number of overseas students will not be in the interests of the British people, who mostly see them as a positive force, and will slowly undermine the quality of our university education.

Above all, let us see if we can ensure a new era of student mobility which cherishes the contribution made by our international students and helps keep our universities as true centres of wisdom and learning.