The University of Sheffield can thank foreign students for its new £81m Diamond building for teaching engineering, with facilities including 19 laboratories, a chemical engineering pilot plant, aerospace simulation lab and virtual reality suite. “If you look at where we got the money, it’s all from Chinese parents,” says Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor.
International student numbers in recent decades have been crucial, not just for universities but also for cities and towns in northern England. They play an important role in generating new sources of growth after the decline of traditional industries.
The north’s 30 higher education institutions together have almost 90,000 foreign students, mostly from non-EU countries such as China, Malaysia, India and Singapore. The University of Manchester has 12,000, more than any other in the UK. At the universities of Lancaster, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Sunderland, international students — EU and non-EU — account for more than 30 per cent of all students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Sir Keith estimates that 40 per cent of his university’s income from teaching comes from international students: “It’s pretty fundamental to keeping our reputation and facilities.”
In Sheffield, the presence of thousands of Chinese students is helping to attract investments such as New Era Square, a £65m 20-storey “Chinatown” development with shops, food and drink outlets, student flats and offices. A study by Oxford Economics in 2013 calculated that international students add £120m annually to Sheffield’s economy, a figure Sir Keith suggests has grown to £200m.
The sector generated £10.7bn of export earnings for the UK in 2011, according to Universities UK, which represents the institutions. Of that, £848m was from the north-west, £802m Yorkshire and Humberside and £457m from the north-east. This includes fees and spending by students and their families.
University chiefs are concerned that the UK’s international student numbers have stagnated — despite a growing global market — since visa rules were tightened four years ago in the government’s drive to curb net migration. Foreign students no longer have the right to stay and work for two years after graduation.
Sir Keith, who campaigns on the issue, says Sheffield’s arrivals from India have “plummeted” and those from China, the largest group, are starting to be hit. He says students should be excluded from net migration targets and calls for cities to be given the ability to grant post-study work visas. “We know the Northern Powerhouse needs people. For God’s sake give us a chance,” he adds.
At Newcastle University, Professor Richard Davies, pro-vice-chancellor, says foreign students bring “a significant income to the university, but it’s much broader than that. When they go back or whatever they end up doing, they act as international alumni for the university.”
The university says international students are often entrepreneurial. It has helped a few to obtain graduate entrepreneur visas allowing them to stay in the UK, which has led to businesses from a cat café, where customers can pet cats, to a media production company and an international education consultancy. The Home Office restricts numbers of these visas but “there is strong potential for increasing numbers of international entrepreneurs”, says Gareth Trainer, assistant director for entrepreneurial development.
Mike Gibbons, director of student recruitment at the University of Manchester, says: “We have to reflect the global futures that many of our students will have. We believe in providing that opportunity both on our campus and to students that travel abroad, because it is a two-way street.”
The university has students from 160 countries. Popular subjects include science and engineering, business, law, medicine and dentistry. As yet it has seen no downturn in Chinese students, perhaps helped by last year’s state visit by China’s President Xi Jinping.
“You can see the accommodation that international students are investing in. They bring their hard-earned money to the shops and spend in the city and they travel around the country as well,” Mr Gibbons says.
Longer-term, he adds: “We have alumni all over the world who carry a bit of Manchester in their hearts. Anecdotally, the evidence is that they see the UK as the place they can do business with.”
James Pitman, UK managing director of Study Group, which prepares international students for university, cites research suggesting that for every 10 international students, their spending creates six jobs in local economies. In the north, he says, students are attracted by universities’ specialisms coupled with lower living costs than in other places.
Mr Pitman adds: “International students should be an absolute underpinning of the whole Northern Powerhouse agenda that the chancellor is pushing.”
Source : FT.com
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