Today’s international students, tomorrow’s UK ambassadors?

CC0 licence by Ian Schneider

International students are the UK’s best future ambassadors. Why are we treating them so badly?

I used to work at the worst college in London. I know this because:

a. I was told it by staff at the Inner London Education Authority when they asked me to work there,
b. I observed it while working there, and
c. eventually, not long after, it became the only FHE college to be closed down by the DfE for its overall incompetence (though others have followed it since).

As with almost all education establishments, even Dotheboys Hall, it wasn’t all bad. There were a few excellent lecturers, some good departments, and other staff working against the odds to try and give the students a positive experience. And some students did do well, and went on to be successful accountants etc, for the college focussed on business qualifications up to degree level. There was also some of the worst teaching I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. The students that went on to success did this despite, rather than because of, much of this instruction. And also thanks to the efforts of that group of staff who went beyond the call of duty to mitigate some of the damage wrought by their colleagues.

So how had this college manage to get away for so many years with delivering such appalling teaching? Simply by largely focussing on the international student market. The college enrolled large numbers of students who had scrimped and saved in their own countries in order to gather funds to pay the college to help them gain the much coveted UK business qualifications of their choice. Whether from India, the Far East, Africa or the Caribbean, they knew that a UK degree or professional qualification was virtually a guarantee of success, being a benchmark for a high quality and ethical education that made them fit for public or private office.

Some students, though not all, came from countries that were still members of the Commonwealth, or had exam structures modelled on the British system. They also knew their stay in the UK, and their visa, was dependent on studying for their qualification. They knew about not rocking the boat by complaining over the quality of teaching they were receiving.

Student hardships

My opinion of its appalling treatment of its students was also confirmed by the response of an HMI, who was supposed to be interviewing me during a college inspection. We got about five minutes into the interview when I could tell he was in a bad way, and I asked him if he was OK to continue. ‘No’, he said, ‘do you mind if we do have that cup of coffee I just declined, and reschedule?’ Coffee supplied, and realising he was in supportive company, he opened up and told me he was almost in tears after seeing the worst teaching he had ever encountered. Knowing where he had just been, I concurred, we talked about the experience till he overcame his emotional response, and he used my office to write probably the most scathing report that an HMI ever penned. We had our proper interview the following day, without any mention of the previous day’s experience, apart from a warm handshake and a knowing ‘… and thank you again’, as he left.


Some of the hardships these students went through outside the classroom were equally hard to believe. The local hospital saw its first recorded case of scurvy in over a century from amongst the student body. It turned out this international student had his fees paid, but had no maintenance money to speak of. He used to buy sacks of oats, and use the chest of drawers in his room to make large slabs of a dried porridge that was his sole supply of food. Hence, eventually, the scurvy. Believe me, the wonderful Student Welfare Officer at that college really earned her money.

Not all the students were so impoverished. The student body also included the children of government ministers, dignitaries and civil servants from all around the world. All keen to get that highly-prized UK business qualification that would be an international passport to success. I remember fun and games one day when the newly-arrived eldest son of an African tribal chief walked straight to the front of the lunch queue and demanded to be served. It seems that was his birthright, and the people teaching British values as part of General Studies really had their work cut out explaining the British pride in their ability to queue. Especially challenging for him when the queue included female as well as male students. There was undoubtedly racism, sexism and also some interesting proxy turf wars in the student body, which included student groups from all sides of the ongoing battles in the Indian sub-continent.

Accounting for success…

But despite all this, each year a cohort of international students attended lessons, undertook work-placements, and garnered qualifications. Then went proudly went back to their home countries with shifted perspectives, full of ideas and principles that they had learned during their stay in the UK. And many went on to gain positions of authority in their own countries, and became the mainstay of continuing trade with the UK, and eventually sent their own children back to the UK for qualifications in their turn. They became unpaid ambassadors for the UK, so we benefited both directly from their student fees, and then indirectly as they sent more contracts for goods and services in our direction.

CC0 licence: chuttersnap-176806The UK led the world in higher education, whether for academic or business qualifications. It was starting to lose some ground to the US, particularly among students from India and the Far East, but it was still a much sought after destination because of the quality and trustworthiness of the degrees and qualifications offered. And these courses came with the bonus of work placement opportunities with some of the best organisations with international reputations in their fields. A newly-qualified accountant with a stint at PwC or EY under their belt is infinitely more employable anywhere in the world. Accountants, architects, designers, doctors…. every profession imaginable could study on the best courses, and gain practical experience in the best workplace environments in the UK – world class leadership was on offer.

Fast forward to today…

When we look at the picture today, there seems to be a colossal and embarrassing shift. Yes, we still have universities and colleges offering those much sought-after qualifications, and more international student applications than places. But, having decided bizarrely to include those on student visas amongst immigration figures, Theresa May at the Home Office then decided these were soft targets when it came to cutting net migration. International students tell of unbelievable bureaucratic hurdles that have to be leapt to actually gain admittance here. Even when here, bureaucratic tangles see them being threatened with having their courses terminated part way through and being sent back home. The latest mess was with a group on a prestigious violin-making course in Newark. That particular group were fortunate, and were eventually permitted to complete their studies, but others have not been so lucky.

Even more disturbingly, the proud tradition of work-placement as part of their university courses is under threat. The complex new regulations label this work-placement as ‘employment’, rather than education. But of course, the new rules dictate that those from overseas have to earn large sums to be allowed employment in the UK. This is an awful threat to our ability to attract teachers and nurses, as has been heavily highlighted in the press. But an even more impossible requirement for those students seeking to complete their qualifications by undertaking the required work-based placement for their qualification which is now classified as ‘employment’. This can involve them having to leave the UK and then trying to get another visa to return for their work-placement – which is made nigh-on impossible, if not just impossibly expensive.

There is a moral and ethical vacuum here that is truly awful to acknowledge. In many ways these students are receiving treatment that is even shabbier than that encountered in the 1980s by the students at the college I described. But there is a profound economic absurdity in this approach that is equally worrying.

‘Student killer’

Anyone visiting Norwich can’t fail to notice the huge numbers of Chinese students attending FHE establishments there. Bed and breakfast owners proudly show off the phone apps that they use to communicate with Chinese parents visiting their offspring. Yet in China Theresa May’s populist nickname ‘留学杀手’ translates as ‘Student Killer’. Her actions have served to damage the supply of students to the UK from one of the very economies that she also cites as being essential markets in the post-Brexit world for which we are headed. How many of those Chinese parents running businesses and working in the markets will be keen to trade with a country that has treated their student children so badly? And it isn’t only China.

CC0 licence by Daria ShevsovaAustralia and Canada are already focussing on the opportunity presented by students from Commonwealth countries finding it hard to get into UK higher education. They are offering the potential HE and professional students a more welcoming face, similar education, and qualifications of equivalent status. Goodwill and trade deals will invariably follow. Hence the frosty reception Liam Fox has been receiving of late in his discussions with Commonwealth countries, and the shift in his thinking on students and immigration statistics. And yet this is another of the much-cited markets that is supposed to replace trade with the EU?

It’s education, NOT employment!

We need to remember that a UK degree or qualification is for life, not just for a limited-visa stay. UK universities need to be able to arrange international student work-placements treated as part of their education, NOT employment. Universities should not just give up on the important principle on the work-placement component of their courses, but lobby harder to have it classified as education again. The Scottish universities already are.

The vast majority of these international students go back to their countries to almost invariably become our best trade ambassadors. The few students that stay on in the UK actually go into areas of skill shortage such as the NHS, where we have a desperate need of their services, and where they also contribute significantly to our economy. So this shift in thinking would be enlightened self-interest at the very least.

Perhaps when we in education, and those in politics, speak about the importance of British values, we should remember that high among them used to be playing the game, rather than gaming the play, and a sense of fair play? And it’s not just cricket, this treatment of international students is just not cricket!

Further Information

Students face deportation (Newark Advertiser)
Deportation threat International students told they can stay after all (Newark Advertiser)
It’s Not Too Late For The Government To Embrace International Students (HuffPost)
Post study work for international students (Universities Scotland)
UK economy faces £2bn hit from weaker international student demand (Public Finance)


Former head of ICT Development at SSAT, Tony Parkin is now a freelance educationalist, lecturer and regular writer for bee-it. Follow Tony on Twitter here.