The UK has educated a monarch, president or prime minister from a quarter of the world’s countries. It is 10 times more likely to educate a world leader than the US, producing one leader per 50,000 graduates.
That must rank as considerable soft power, assuming that these leaders have enjoyed their time and kept their close links. Former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Syrian President Bashar Assad had both spent time studying in the UK so perhaps it is not always a success.
Britain’s education offering remains world class, and London and other cities are still attractive destinations. English is still by far the most sought-after language globally, and with reason. It is worth a staggering £73 billion to the British economy. But is this all under threat in the aftermath of last year’s decision to leave the EU, tighter immigration rules and evidence of a xenophobic atmosphere?
Britain aspires to be “truly global,” says Prime Minister Theresa May. Brexiteers claim that leaving the EU will make the UK more outward looking, not less. Students coming to Britain from all over the world create warm ties and bonds. Certainly in Europe, the UK is well ahead in the higher-education field.
Yet discussing this with foreign students coming to Britain, there is a decided reservation about this ambition, and worries about just how welcoming the country will be. Many believe Britain is already a global power, but that Brexit, tougher visa regulations and the simultaneous rise in hate crimes call this status into question.
In the first month after Brexit, there was a massive 41 percent rise in hate crimes, much of that directed at Muslims. This may settle down, but the harsher visa regime looks here to stay, with more measures to follow. Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised a crackdown only in October, and sources suggest this could mean a cut of nearly half in foreign students.
Without Brexit, Britain might have been in pole position, not least with Arab students, to profit from the hostile anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant furor that has accompanied the election of Donald Trump in the US. Here, the far right has been radically and violently energized by his election.
All great nations and civilizations have thrived when seeking knowledge and investing in education. Britain needs to keep its academic doors well and truly open if it is to progress in a post-EU era.
Trump will be even tougher on immigration, and his campaign victory has seen a huge rise in hate crimes, not least against Muslims. Jews too have suffered, as for example figures from New York show. These are at levels far worse than in Britain. Anti-Muslim hate groups in the US have tripled between 2015 and 2017, from 34 to 101, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The last time Arabs and Muslims felt this unwelcome was just after 9/11, and then many students, not least from the Gulf, opted for alternative countries for their university years. According to surveys, many international students are weighing up their options, including leaving the US. One survey suggests the US could lose up to $700 million in fees due to the immigration changes being brought in by Trump.
Germany also has suffered from increased hate crime. In 2016, there was on average 10 attacks on immigrants every day, so it might be Canada and Australia that will pounce and exploit the situation.
Why, then, is Britain shooting itself in the foot and risking killing the golden goose? The trouble is that the government is desperate to fulfil its pledge to cut immigration, and students are still included in the figures. But students come to learn, not earn, and pay fees. Many argue that foreign students should not be included in the immigration figures.
All EU residents in Britain remain at risk. No guarantees have been given to them about their status when the UK leaves the EU. A huge political row is in full flow over whether Britain is holding them hostage in forthcoming negotiations with the 27 other EU states. This matters to universities, not least risking the status of the highly talented EU academics in Britain. It seems to be an own goal from the government given the huge benefits to the country.
Foreign academics and students have allowed university cities to flourish. It highlights the challenges of settling the debate about Britain’s future. Not only should it guarantee existing EU staff and students their places, but encourage their inflow post-Brexit. All great nations and civilizations have thrived when seeking knowledge and investing in education. Britain needs to keep its academic doors well and truly open if it is to progress in a post-EU era.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.