Educational isolationism doesn't work


UCLWhat’s the best way to stop drug running in your backyard? Probably not a fence that can be scaled in 18 seconds flat. At an average cost of over £1.5 million per km, the U.S.-Mexico border wall has been pilloried in the British press as “an expensive white elephant”. What an outrageous example of racist American isolationism, one might say. I would tend to agree, but the phenomenon is not uniquely American. The Home Office’s recently announced immigration reforms seem more like a political ploy to xenophobes than sound policy. They also dangerously encroach upon freedoms of movement and action.

Take for example cuts in the number of student visas issued. Monday’s Home Office statement claims, "We expect our new student visas policies to lead to a net reduction of around 230,000 student migrants over the full term of this parliament, from 2011 to 2015."

The whole circus seems bizarre. Where does the 230,000 target come from? It was 400,000 in March before public outcry, and the drop makes the number look arbitrary. Is the government trying to find the optimal point between liberal rage and conservative frustration, ahead of the 2015 election?

No one is directly hurt by the presence of foreign students. Anti-immigration advocates argue that each foreign student admitted means one British student rejected. Well, sort of, but admissions does not exactly work like that. Students are compared against one another as a pool, so it is the most qualified applicant who is admitted. Indeed, international admissions are typically more competitive.

If the argument is that unqualified British students ought get spaces before qualified foreign ones, then all I can say is that I favour competitive universities. The quality of an institution depends upon getting the best people, regardless of from whence they come. Yale and Harvard will continue to outstrip Oxbridge in international rankings if the Home Office insists upon treating world-class institutions like a primary school sporting event, in which everyone gets a prize.

Foreign students pay unsubsidised tuition, contributing more than £2 bn in fees each year. Eliminating this revenue can only harm British students: foreign students’ fees allow British universities to fund projects and expansion they could never afford on government grants and domestic tuition alone.

Most troubling is that the “need” for a government limit only exists because the supply of and demand for foreign students exceeds what government deems appropriate. The limit places an unnatural ceiling on foreign intake, in effect distorting the market. Universities should be free to offer places to whomever they like, and students should be free to pursue educational opportunities outside their home countries. This would be more just, and it simply works better.