Students are big business in Brighton and Hove. Whether they’re studying at Sussex University, Brighton University or one of the dozens of language schools such as EF, they bring millions of pounds a year into the local economy.
They pay rent to landlords or host families, they use our buses, trains and taxis and they buy food, clothes and much else besides from our local shops.
They support thousands of jobs in the city and beyond.
But there’s a real risk that our paying guests may feel that they’re no longer welcome.
It’s the result of a tension at the heart of government. And it poses a bigger threat to Brighton than to most places unless it can be resolved with political will and common sense.
The tension is between those who wish to see a cut in immigration and those who want our universities and language schools to thrive.
The situation looks to have become more dangerous because David Willetts, one of the few senior ministers who seemed to understand the threat, appears to have come up with a compromise that is riddled with pitfalls.
The Vice Chancellor of Sussex University, Michael Farthing, is probably not Mr Willetts’s biggest critic. But he is unpersuaded by Mr Willetts’s proposal that universities open branch campuses overseas to make up for fewer foreign students being allowed to study in Britain.
Professor Farthing said: “He missed the point completely.”
Mr Willetts’s proposal is part of an attempt to help the government keep its promise on immigration.
The coalition pledged to cut the number of net migrants from about 250,000 a year to less than 100,000 over the next three years.
Students make up the biggest group. Last year Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said that she would cut the number of students coming to Britain by 80,000 a year.
Immigration Minister Damian Green has been among those to highlight bogus language schools and bogus student visas being used to get round the law.
Few would disagree with tackling abuses of the system. But there could be a simpler solution – don’t count students in the immigration numbers.
Professor Farthing said: “My primary standpoint is that we shouldn’t regard students coming to the UK as immigrants.
“These people are really no different to people who come here on a business trip or to visit family and friends. They are here to study.
“The vast majority won’t stay in this country and those who do should stay because they’re the brightest and the best and we’re trying to recruit them.
“We should treat them in a much more respectful way. They have chosen us. We treat them as if they are potential criminals.
“We should be welcoming. We should make it easy for bona fide students to enter this country.”
He said that Australia had had a wake-up call on this issue. Having cracked down on students from abroad, it realised the damage that was being self-inflicted on its economy as well as on its relations with other countries.
Professor Farthing said: “We’ve got about 130 nations represented here on campus. We create a global community here.
“It’s partly about the economics. But it’s also about giving UK students – and UK and EU students are still about 80 per cent of our student base – an international experience as well as giving international students a UK experience.
“The huge additional added value is that we’re creating ambassadors for the future for our individual institutions and for the UK. This is soft power.
“I was in the US a few weeks ago rewarding one of our alumni who had just given us a £1.5 million donation. He was here 30 to 40 years ago and he remembers his experience as life-changing.”
Although the donation was a specific sum, it’s hard to disagree with Professor Farthing’s broader observation when he said: “You can’t put a value on that.
“We’ve got people in many countries of the world who are now leaders as politicians or in administrations. They open doors for us and speak well of us.
“It’s very shortsighted over the long haul. Take transient students out of the figures!
“Opening branch campuses abroad is not a replacement. We may do it, but our priority here is the university on its home base.
“Our current strategy is based on building ten deep serious relationships with other universities around the world.
“Branch campuses will never benefit UK PLC.”
An independent report a few years ago found that the two universities between them contributed more than a billion pounds to the economy of Brighton and Hove.
About a fifth of students at Sussex come from outside the EU and they pay disproportionately more to study here. And they tend to spend more during their stay.
A sharp cut in numbers would spell disaster for the local jobs market.
Mr Willetts, who is known as Two Brains because he’s so clever, and his ministerial boss Vince Cable are aware of the vital financial contribution made by student visitors.
They are also aware of the long-term danger of turning away good business at a time of recession. And they appreciate the risk that the recovery will take longer as wealthy foreigners send their children somewhere more welcoming.
So the Universities Minister needs to find the right answer to the student visa problem. If he can persuade his colleagues in government to take genuine students out of the immigration figures, a huge threat to Brighton and Hove will be lifted.
Simon Kirby, the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, said: “Many constituents write to me about immigration control and the government is working hard to achieve this.
“Between 1997 and 2009 net immigration totalled 2.2 million. This is twice the population of Birmingham.
“This government has committed to reforming all routes of entry to the UK in order to bring immigration levels under control. The aim is to tighten up the system and to stop abuses.
“The May 2010 Coalition Agreement stated the government’s commitment to dealing with immigration: ‘The government believes that immigration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy but that it must be controlled so that people have confidence in the system.
“‘We also recognise that to ensure cohesion and protect our public services we need to introduce a cap on immigration.’”
“One route of entry to the UK was the student visa route and the government has fundamentally reformed this, bringing in measures to reduce the numbers of bogus colleges.
“The government introduced restrictions on which types of students can work during their studies or bring their dependent family members with them, how long students can stay in the UK and the circumstances in which they can switch into an employment category after finishing their studies.
“While I am fully supportive of the government’s attempts to reduce the levels of immigration, I am always conscious of the positive contribution genuine language schools make to the local economy here in Brighton, Kemp Town and Peacehaven.
“For that reason it is imperative that these changes do not deter genuine students from coming to the UK.
“The government has made clear that it does not intend to target legitimate students. However, I know there are concerns that aspects of these proposals could have implications which may be to the detriment of this enormously beneficial industry.
“I have been happy to liaise with staff and students at Brighton’s excellent language schools to help them communicate these concerns to the government.”
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