Host countries need to show international students that they are welcome as they battle against red-tape and suspicion, says Yinbo Yu.
I came to the UK from China for the reputation and history of its educational institutions. What I found was so much more than that. It is not just my education that has benefited me, but the huge diversity of cultures present in the UK education sector.
I started out as the archetype of a Chinese student – isolated, nervous and only mixing with other students from my homeland. But then there came a major milestone moment in my life – I joined the Chinese Students and Scholars’ Association (CSSA) at my student union. I never thought back then that I’d someday be elected CSSA president, but I felt that anything I could do to help international students integrate into the community was worth it.
Looking back on my journey is emotional for me. I was the first ever Chinese full-time officer at the University of East Anglia, I got involved in many great national campaigns and am now the elected officer at the National Union of Students that represents over seven million students in the UK. My experience was life-changing, but so are the experiences of every international student who comes here to study.
Comments last autumn from the Home Secretary about removing international students from net migration figures offer a golden opportunity to finally show them that they are appreciated, they are valued and they are welcome here. And, at the beginning of January, it was encouraging to see a growing group of voices within the ruling Conservative Party publicly urge the prime minister to make the move.
Former education secretary and MP Nicky Morgan even said that students were part of the ‘global Britain’ brand.
It is of course vital to show international students they are welcome. Because while these students will have incredible, transformational experiences here, they also face countless barriers.
To access a decent international education, international students must battle through visa restrictions, being denied access to basic healthcare or student loans and interrogations from landlords over status. The Toeic test scandal back in 2014 is just one example of the hardships international students face on a daily basis. The accusations hurled at tens of thousands of international students about cheating on their English tests resulted in thousands being wrongly deported.
The ONS figures published in August showed just how wrong the outlandish claims that international students exploit the system really are. We now know that over 97 per cent of students return back home after completing their studies.
Many people are now beginning to acknowledge the economic, social and cultural value that international students bring to the UK. And we know that home students here in the UK are as supportive of their international peers.
In April this year, the NUS published a report that showed a majority of students in the UK felt their degrees would suffer if international student numbers dropped. Our research found that 70 per cent of UK students agree that any reduction in international students would impact their cultural experience at university.
A quarter of students believe that their course could not run without international students, which shows the reliance many courses in UK universities have on attracting international students. An important finding was that 75 per cent of students agreed that international students should be allowed to work in the UK after graduating.
These are not just numbers, this is reality. We must not underestimate the power of international education. Without education we wouldn’t all be living in this developed, globalised tech-age.
This is why we must not downplay the importance of student mobility. Brexit negotiations are under way, and the Immigration Bill is around the corner. We must act now to protect the transformational experiences of our international students and the experiences of UK students who study abroad, in Europe and beyond.
I recently organised the first ever international student leaders’ conference at the NUS. It was so inspiring and invigorating to be in a room full of students from such diverse backgrounds with such passion and imagination.
We worked on building leadership skills and knowledge, we discussed the rhetoric and language around international students on campuses and we shared best practices and experiences.
What I saw was a group of individuals who together could genuinely change the world. It is vital that we continue to build these networks and inspire and empower international students to take up leadership positions. That is one way we can continue to show the value of international education and fight for improved student mobility.
I’ve said before that without international study I would not be the person I’ve become. I want as many students as possible to have the opportunities I have had, and I will work every day to make that happen.
Yinbo Yu is international students’ officer at the National Union of Students in the UK.