It’s time for a cap on foreign students in our universities, writes law professor Andrew Tettenborn
My day job is teaching International Maritime Law at Swansea University, so largely a non-political world.
But I also have a second career as a commentator, posting on social media and writing columns like this one.
And to that end, I’ve sometimes had reason to mention China’s repression—even the genocide—of its Muslim Uyghur minority, its actions in Taiwan, and the rest of Beijing’s ugly catalog of human rights abuses.
Normally my work as a law professor and as a polemicist are worlds apart. But not always.
A few years ago, an acquaintance told me she had learned that a local representative of the Chinese Communist Party in Dalian, a city of 7.5 million people in eastern China, did not think I was completely trustworthy.
At that point, I would give a series of lectures on Zoom – my audience, which included many students in China.
Then I got a horrifying email. It told me with tact and threat that some people in China would like to see a discreet preview of my slides – people I clearly understood as Communist Party officials.
I had nothing to hide, so I obeyed. Perhaps, I reasoned, one of my students was from that city — and was being watched by the authorities.
So I read with interest yesterday’s story in the Daily Mail. The number of foreign-born students at British universities has exploded.
In 2006 the proportion of foreign students enrolling at elite universities of the ‘Russell Group’ was still 12 percent.
Last year this had risen to 23 percent, meaning that in fact one in four students at British universities is now a foreigner.
What explains this huge increase? The answer is obvious. A UK student might pay £9,000 in annual fees to their university, but international students pay an average of £24,000.
That’s a huge amount over three or four years, especially when you add up the housing costs.
The number of foreign students at ‘Russell Group’ universities had so effectively risen to 23 percent, one in four students at British universities is now a foreigner
At some universities, the numbers are real eye-openers. About 54 percent of students at the prestigious London School of Economics and University College London now come from abroad.
St Andrews occupies almost 40 percent, while more than a third of the students in Manchester and Edinburgh come from abroad.
My own institution, Swansea, welcomes 4,000 of its 20,000 undergraduate students as foreign visitors – and they make an incomparable difference to campus life.
As at any UK university, many of those international students are there on merit alone.
But it is high time Britain tackled these extraordinary numbers.
After all, any place given to a student from faraway places is a space denied to a British teenager who’s worked hard to get the best exam results, but whose efforts count in vain against a checkbook-wielding international student.
The fact is, our college places, especially in our best institutions, are increasingly being auctioned off to the highest bidders.
And that’s much more likely a youngster from Shanghai than from Sherborne, and from Beijing than from Bradford.
Of course, it is not only Chinese students, although they are by far the largest cohort.
More than 31,000 Chinese nationals have applied for an undergraduate degree in Britain this year, a 10 percent increase from 2021.
India was in second place, with nearly 12,000 applications – a 20 percent year-on-year increase – and Hong Kongers come in third.
Also striking is the increase in registrations from Nigerian students: 57 percent more than last year to more than 5,000.
The head of UCAS, Clare Marchant, believes that universities should recruit more students from abroad, including Ghana and Vietnam, and is working with vice chancellors to do so.
British universities are clearly doing their best to attract more international students than ever before.
The reason isn’t surprising: these institutions ran out of rental income during the pandemic, as students—despite being at low risk for the virus—were brutally barred from on-campus digs and forced to attend classes on Zoom. .
Needless to say, they didn’t get a discount on their fees for this inferior offering.
Head of UCAS Clare Marchant (pictured), thinks universities should recruit more students from abroad, including Ghana and Vietnam
They also missed the friendships and joyful social interactions that are so crucial to college life.
My point is that British universities – although they cannot of course run at a loss – are not primarily money-making businesses.
Their vital role is to train a small fraction of the young Britons best suited to higher education so that they in turn will lead their chosen field – from finance to art, science to academia.
They also, of course, do invaluable work at the postgraduate level, increasing the sum of human knowledge.
International students should be a small but vital part of that academic community: they contribute enormously to the lively exchange of ideas that make learning so stimulating, and they enrich my own lectures and tutorials endlessly.
But their share at many institutions is now greatly skewed. And this is not just a gross injustice to talented and deserving British youth.
As I’ve seen for myself, institutions that have become too reliant on the money pouring in from international students can begin to scrutinize their curricula more closely.
They may feel the sudden need to be careful with the topics of Taiwanese independence, or the fate of Hong Kong since Beijing ‘took back control’.
When large numbers of Indian students sit in the lecture hall, what lecturer will be bold enough to question Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overt Hindu nationalism, which alienates so many other faiths in that great subcontinental melting pot?
This self-censorship is at odds with the right spirit of a university, where free inquiry and vigorous debate should be part of life.
In many cases, this censorship is even explicit. Universities with large numbers of Chinese students are likely to be closely monitored by the nearest ‘Confucius Institute’.
Ostensibly, these shadowy organizations are cultural institutions created to promote closer Sino-British relations.
In fact, indirectly or indirectly, they are funded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and take a worrying share of their orders from Beijing.
They can donate money to universities, facilitate a guest lecturer from China, and “help” — and even control” their “student citizens” in the capitalist West.
The CCP also works diligently to influence British academic institutions for its own purposes.
The once-respected Jesus College, Cambridge, has swelled its coffers so much with Chinese donations that some have named it “Xi-sus” College, after President Xi Jinping.
In 2020, Jesus accepted a whopping £200,000 from the Chinese state and £155,000 from Chinese telecom company Huawei.
Jesus College, Cambridge (pictured) has received so many Chinese donations that some have called it ‘Xi-sus’ College, after President Xi Jinping
Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has accused the College of assisting China’s “disruption of academic ideas and academic freedoms.”
Universities should be free of all this taint. They should not pay attention to what they say or they would anger their foreign paymasters.
For example, I would welcome a limit on the proportion of foreign students: a minimum of 10 percent seems reasonable.
In much of rural Britain, the number of second home owners is limited in order to preserve the unique culture of towns and villages and to give locals an edge. Universities should be no different.