International Students – Caught in the crossfire?

by Ian McDonald

Immigration is likely to be a key issue at the next General Election and, unsurprisingly, the number of news stories over the last few months linked to the subject has been even higher than normal – the lifting of restrictions of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants; calls from across the political spectrum to stop migrants moving to the UK simply to claim benefits; and divisions between the two coalition parties on immigration policy. This is not the place, nor am I sufficiently expert on immigration policy, to conduct a forensic examination of the immigration policy scene; though I agree some reform is needed. I would, however, like to briefly discuss one group affected by immigration policy – namely international Higher Education (HE) students.

BCU TEE faculty students come from across the world
BCU TEE faculty students come from across the world

Well over half of the full-time postgraduate research students in the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment (TEE) at Birmingham City University (BCU) are international students, coming from countries ranging from Germany to Nigeria and Mexico to Palestine and I am very proud of this diversity! I have joked that it is my ambition to have one research student from each of 195 United Nations member states! BCU states proudly on its website that it has “international alliances” and “an expanding student community from more than 80 countries.” (BCU 2013)

However, despite the Government’s protestations to the contrary, the impression that is being given to many prospective international students (and their governments) is that the UK is no longer ‘open’ to international students. In a recent article on the Guardian’s website, a London-based student described his University’s obsessive monitoring of his attendance and similar initiatives as “racist and degrading”. He also stated “If I knew that was the situation, I wouldn’t have come in the first place, and would tell others back home to think twice” (Tapia 2013).

Speaking at a fringe event at the Liberal Democrat Conference in 2013, Vince Cable stated that Australia and the USA are now seen as more welcoming to international students (Marsh 2013). This was backed up by the most recent data, published last month, which showed the first decline in the number of international students coming to study in the UK in twenty-nine years (BBC 2014). The latest figures for international study in the USA (2011/2) show 764,495 students, a record high, now studying in the country, an increase of 31% in just a decade (Farrugia et al. cited in Jamieson-Drake & Luo 2013). Additionally, a number of countries in Europe (especially Scandinavia), Asia and the Middle East now offer courses in English in a clear attempt to attract international students (Ryan 2013, p.3). Another example of a country which has clear ambitions of attracting significant numbers of international students is China, which now welcomes more international students to its universities than it sends abroad (IIE cited in Ryan 2013).

The fall in the number of international students coming to study in the UK is a regrettable trend for UK Higher Education, as international students bring a wide range of benefits to both the University/Faculty/School in which they study and to the country and its economy as a whole (Race 2007, NAFSA 2013). At a local level, they enrich the University’s student population, bringing diversity of ideas, culture and educational experiences. Research by Jamieson-Drake and Luo (2013) demonstrates that coming into contact with international students actually benefits the domestic students as they have the opportunity to meet people from countries which they may never have the opportunity to visit, gain insights into fresh perspectives on life and improve their own skills/knowledge. International study can give students from countries which have difficult relations the chance to meet on a neutral territory and break down barriers, at least at a local level and on a one-to-one basis.

On a national level, international students can, according to a recent Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) research paper ‘The Wider Benefits of International Higher Education in the UK’, bring two main types of benefits – ‘economic’ and ‘influence’ (BIS 2013, p. x). Economic benefits include “Additional HE Exports”, in other words, students who have had a positive experience of Higher Education in the UK will return to their home country and recommend study in the UK to friends and colleagues, or even assist in the setting up of a link between a UK University and one in their home country. Another economic benefit is “Personal Consumer Behaviour”, where alumni may develop loyalty to UK brands and companies and continue to patronise them, even after returning home. Additionally, such students may be more inclined to return to the UK for holidays (BIS 2013, p.34).

‘Influence’ benefits can include international alumni acting as unofficial ambassadors for the UK, sharing a positive view of its values and culture abroad. Similarly, alumni can help promote trust in the UK abroad by sharing their positive experiences with colleagues, friends and business partners. ‘Soft’ power and mutual understanding cannot be underestimated in the modern world and are vital to the country, in addition to official diplomatic, political and trade discussions (British Council 2012).

Yes, the UK’s immigration policy may well need some reforming. However, international students enrich our Universities, both academically and culturally, and also bring a number of benefits, including all important economic benefits, to the country as a whole. We need to ensure they are not caught in the crossfire of clampdowns on the tiny minority who wish to abuse this country’s systems!



BBC (2014) Decline of overseas students at England’s universities [accessed 5 April 2014]

Birmingham City University (2013a) Why Study Here?  [accessed 27 November 2013]

British Council (2012) Trust pays. London: British Council

Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (2013) The Wider Benefits of International Higher Education in the UK: BIS Research Paper Number 128. Cambridge: CRAC

Jamieson-Drake, D. & Luo, J. (2013) ‘Examining the Educational Benefits of Interacting with International Students’, Journal of International Students in Higher Education, Vol. 3 No. 2, pp.85-101

Marsh, S. (2013) Vince Cable: international students do not feel welcome in Britain [accessed 12 January 2014]

NAFSA (2013) The International Student Economic Value Tool [Accessed 25 January 2014)Race, P. (2007) The Lecturer’s Toolkit. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge

Ryan, J. (2013) ‘Introduction’, in Ryan, J (ed.) Cross-Cultural Teaching and Learning for Home and International Student. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.41-52

Tapia, Z. (2013) Picking on international students will only damage Britain.  [accessed 25 January 2014]


Ian McDonald is the Research Officer for the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment at Birmingham City University. He is very proud that the Faculty has research students from a wide variety of countries. He has a journal paper entitled ‘Supporting international students in UK higher education institutions’ which will soon be published in Perspectives – Policy and Practice in Higher Education. Follow him on Twitter @IanCMcD

3 thoughts on “International Students – Caught in the crossfire?

  1. I am speechless, great words and passion about what you write ……….. very impressive Ian, I LOVED it !!!!

    1. This is great but not too suprise because you are known for supporting anyone in irrespective of race, colour or religion. If everyone thinks like you, then the world would have been a better place for all

  2. This is very interesting. It makes international students feel at home and some of us still want to come. Well done Ian.

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