Why the ‘international experience’ on our university campuses must not be sacrificed

I couldn’t leave 2016 without some reference to the events that really shook us this year – Brexit and the Trump presidency. The world was clearly taken aback by the respective decisions, and like many people, I’ve been shocked and saddened by the divisive and racist backlash that has occurred both in the UK and US following the votes. But I also take comfort from hearing and seeing millions of people stand up to promote values of tolerance, diversity, and unity within our communities and societies.

Whilst we continue to see fierce debates about the implications of the EU referendum and US elections, one area we must continue to focus on is the potential impact on universities and the global educational experience.

Here, the fallout over Brexit continues. People are angry about the threat to funding, research grants, overseas staff recruitment and collaborative projects, and the future uncertainty facing mobility programmes such as ERASMUS, which the government has been urged to protect.

But this is not just about safeguarding study and work abroad opportunities, but also ensuring the global experience for home students on university campuses is not underminedAnd this is where the future of the EU and wider international student population within UK higher education matters.

Some reassurances have been given for EU students in the short term. But is recruitment generally going to be an issue? Reports have shown that the vote to leave the European Union has sent a ‘negative message’ about the UK and how welcoming it is, with overseas students saying they would be less likely to want to come and study here. Brexit is only part of a wider problem though; the government’s policy towards international students and tightening of post study work visas has had a detrimental effect. India is one notable example, with data showing there has been a 50% drop in students from the country since 2010. Across the Atlantic, the States is also facing similar issues, with some surveys showing over 50% of international students are less inclined to study in the US under a Trump presidency.

Of course, some of this may be initial panic as can be seen immediately after a major event, and long term who knows what will happen in either countries. But it’s not a matter to be taken lightly or overlooked. In my interview with David Shindler’s Learning to Leap podcast a few months ago, I reinforced what many people have said – whilst the economic value of international students is clearly significant, we can’t just look at their contribution in financial terms alone. We need to continue to reinforce the social and cultural benefits they bring and the different ways they can enrich the home student experience.

Fortunately, many can see the benefits too; last year, a survey of UK university applicants believe studying alongside foreign students will help prepare them for work in a globalised economy. We also have some strong advocates and campaigns to champion the cause of international students. Lord Karan Bilimoria, the renowned businessman who founded Cobra Beers and, in addition to other roles, is also president of the UK Council of International Student Affairs (UKCISA), has called on the government to change it’s stance towards international students, highlighting that it will drive the students to study elsewhere. And the growing #WeAreInternational campaign, launched by Sheffield University, and with support from over 100 universities, educational institutions and organisations, is continuing to drive the message that international students add value to our UK higher education landscape, culture and wider economy.

I’ve been involved in and witnessed many fantastic examples of intercultural projects, events and forums for diverse groups to come together and learn. I’ve also led mock assessment centre workshops where UK, European and non-European students are working in teams and gaining an awareness of different leadership styles and cultural etiquettes. For students who have never been, and may not get an opportunity to go abroad, this is not just ‘a nice thing to learn,’ it’s about opening up minds and developing cross-cultural skills essential for our changing world of work.

Two decades ago, I was fortunate to study alongside globally minded, diverse students from all over the world. But I can’t help but feel that what I saw as a natural part of my university experience is now facing a grave threat. If international student recruitment continues to be further compromised, it will be a real shame for future students and their learning. This is why we need such campaigns and advocates more than ever before.

My simple call to action for current UK students – yes, make the most of opportunities to go abroad, whether that is through international exchange programmes, volunteering or internships. But take advantage of the real ‘global experience’ that is happening right now on your campus – not just in your classrooms, but through the wider university networks. Join language and cultural societies, clubs, and take part in forums with international students that will help you gain an awareness of diverse perspectives.

This is vital for your own personal development and also in shaping your future as a global graduate.

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