Open universities

SCEssexUnicropped.jpgShami Chakrabarti on ensuring students and academics from beyond the UK remain welcome within our higher education system

The House of Lords has today been considering the effects of immigration policy on the higher education sector - a debate in which I made my maiden speech.

My interest in this area stems in part from being the Chancellor of the University of Essex, an honorary Professor at both the University of Manchester and the London School of Economics; along with various other higher education affiliations down the years. But also, because like so many other parliamentarians, I owe my life chances to a wonderful education in the UK, including a legal one that was free up to degree level and supported by a full maintenance grant.

For the daughter of migrants to this country, that education was vitally important. As however, was the opportunity I had whilst at university to rub along with students and teachers from all over the world. Higher learning has no borders and, as discussed in a recent Lords debate led by my Labour colleague Clive Soley, an academy that has borders imposed upon it cannot thrive let alone maintain its world-class status.

The University of Essex for example, is consistently in the top five UK universities for recruitment of non-UK EU students. We are proud to be placed 21st in the world rankings by The Times Higher Education – a measure of the proportion of international students and staff, and volume of scientific papers co-authored with academics from outside the UK. 14.4% of our student population are non-UK EU students and to lose them completely would reduce our fee income by 13% or £17.5 million per year. Reductions of this order, if not matched by an additional intake of non-EU students, would have a major detrimental impact on the university's ability to contribute nearly £500 million a year to the local and regional economy.

Across the UK, universities support over 170,000 jobs in local communities and add more than £10.7bn annually to our economy. But the effect of blocking overseas students and academics cannot be measured in monetary value alone.

In this shrinking interconnected world, both educational experience and research strength are increasingly measured by internationalism. So to diminish the diversity of UK campuses would be to encourage an exodus of student, research and teaching talent from our shores. People need to plan their working lives in cycles of several years and there is a real danger arising from perceptions that the UK might become a less welcoming academic environment as a result of Brexit or student immigration policy. Or even just from the related political rhetoric.

International students are visitors not migrants. They do not take places from young people from the UK but rather enrich both their learning and their lives. And if some go on to live and work here beyond their degrees that also benefits our economy and society.

In the few weeks since I became a peer, I have seen the House of Lords bring great value and patient scrutiny to the legislative process – not least in defence of rights, freedoms and the rule of law. That role is no doubt an enormous primary responsibility, but in difficult times there may be others besides. Perhaps to unite in reminding those who campaigned for and against leaving the EU that despite the sometimes bitter debates, nobody argued for our disengagement from the world. Such disengagement is especially impossible in education. Our country cannot be open for business if we are not also open for learning.

Baroness Shami Chakrabarti is Shadow Attorney General and Chancellor of the University of Essex

Published 17th November 2016

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