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HEi-think: Why overseas students deserve a more welcoming UK visa policy

Following encouraging comments from universities minister Sam Gyimah on Universities UK's call for the re-introduction of a post-study work visa, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, the outgoing President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield who co-founded the #WeAreInternational campaign with the President of the Sheffield Students' Union in 2012, argues that now is the time for the government to back up its welcoming words for international students with a welcoming policy change.

HEi-think: Why overseas students deserve a more welcoming UK visa policy

andresr / 123RF

Following encouraging comments from universities minister Sam Gyimah on Universities UK's call for the re-introduction of a post-study work visa, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, the outgoing President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield who co-founded the #WeAreInternational campaign with the President of the Sheffield Students' Union in 2012, argues that now is the time for the government to back up its welcoming words for international students with a welcoming policy change.


In recent months there has been a growing public understanding of the enormous economic contribution of international students and the damaging cost of the withdrawal of the post-study work visa. From HM Treasury to Town Halls, international students are increasingly understood to be crucial to the economic future of the UK. I strongly welcome the vitally important UUK proposal on post-study work which was announced on the eve of the UUK Conference in Sheffield.

This impact of international students is local as well as national, and very strongly felt in the city which hosted this event. The 2018 Higher Education Policy Institute report into the economic impact of international students across the UK revealed the 2,456 international students in the Sheffield Central constituency who began their studies in 2015/16 will contributed £226 million each year to the economy during their time at university - equivalent to £1,961 per constituent per annum in the constituency, the highest per constituent impact in the UK. Across the region, international students account for a full 10% of inward investment and their contribution essential to local businesses and communities.

What is not so well understood is the contribution of international students to scholarship itself, but it must not be ignored. As a scientist, I have seen throughout my career that the most important research groups are truly international. Those who taught me in Oxford in the 70s had come to the UK from the continent, many as refugees fleeing the Nazis. Later I worked with extraordinarily talented students from India, China, Eastern Europe and South America. Their work considered the nature of the universe and laid the groundwork for quantum computing. This shared scientific endeavour was global, building precious bonds across the world.

Many of our leading global experts, our medics and scholars, originally came to the UK as international students who mitigated the cost of study by a period of work. And international students do other wonderful things too. They help pay for the best facilities and enable universities to bridge the widening financial gap between public funding and the actual costs of seeking understanding. UK HE would be academically poorer and in serious financial trouble without them. In human terms, to lose the ability to make global connections would be a tragedy.

However, politics can turn inwards and rejection of the stranger is on the rise as political walls are erected around the world. So there has never been a more important time for universities, students and business to speak with one voice in support of our great global endeavour. We owe the deepest debt of gratitude to families around the world who have often made personal sacrifices to send their children to study with us. The least we can do as a nation is to make our words of welcome real by securing much needed change.

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