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The UK is lucky to have its international students

Dr Michael Spence, President and Provost

Dr Michael Spence, President and Provost | UCL

6 min read Partner content

What an amazing thing it is to be an international student: to leave your home, family, friends and everything familiar, often at a young age, and set out for a different country and culture, full of ambition to learn new things, not just about your subject but about life, the world and yourself.

And what an amazing thing it is to be a country that attracts international students: to be able to bring to our shores some of the most talented, bravest and motivated people in the world, who bring us, yes, economic benefits, but also far-reaching social and cultural benefits, and who graduate with a connection to this country that is a source of tremendous ongoing international influence.

I am deeply saddened, therefore, by the narrative that is developing in some corners of the commentariat about our international students. Some misleading and exaggerated media reporting over recent weeks, playing on the xenophobia that exists everywhere, has exposed a small but real vein of hostility to these remarkable people. 

As someone who came to this country as an international student, married to someone who went to Australia as an international student, and knowing something of the enormous step that it is to travel overseas for study, I have assured our international student community at UCL that they are valued and that the university will stand up for them.

Contrary to some of the claims currently circulating, international students come to the UK to work hard, experience British life and, in so many cases, with a real thirst to turn what they are learning into ideas that make a difference both here and at home.

I am thinking, for example, of Arifa Aminy, who studied English in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and went on to become one of our student Sabbatical Officers, driving initiatives on behalf of other students such as child-friendly study spaces for student carers, free period products on campus and support for LGBTQ+ students.

I think also of Udit Singhal, who came to UCL from India and, while still an undergraduate student, set up Glass2Sand: an initiative to save glass from going into landfill by converting it into building material. In 2023, he was named as one of Forbes India’s “30 under 30” and certainly has the most incredible career of achievement ahead of him.

And, as a useful reminder that international students are not a recent innovation, I can also point to Charles Kao, Nobel Prize winner and the ‘godfather of broadband’, who came to UCL from Hong Kong to study for a PhD. He remained in the UK to work for a few years, as many international students do, to the great benefit of both themselves and this country. It was here that he carried out his world-changing work to create fibre optics before he returned home, where he joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong, of which he eventually became Vice-Chancellor.

Charles kept his relationship with the UK strong throughout his life, promoting mutually beneficial research partnerships and exchange opportunities with UCL and other UK universities. When, later in life, that incredible mind was tragically affected by Alzheimer’s he supported UCL’s activities to raise funds for our dementia research, providing a powerful illustration of the desperate need for greater investment. No one could look at his life and doubt how lucky we all are that such a brilliant student chose the UK to nurture his talent.

These students came to UCL with a deep awareness of the opportunities that an international education offers and a determination to embrace them. They left with bonds of friendship and understanding with the UK that are immeasurably valuable to us all.

The ability to do business, to influence, to be listened to is more often than not based on person-to-person links between countries, and a sense that a country is familiar and friendly. Thanks to the UK’s ability to attract international students, hundreds of thousands of invisible bonds of friendship link us to politicians and policymakers, business and industry leaders, innovators, and generators of wealth, employment and investment worldwide. Should we lose that, the loss would be all ours and the winners would be the many other countries that are keen to open their doors to the students who currently choose to come here.

We would also, it must be said, lose the more than £25bn a year that international students are estimated to contribute to the UK economy. That is no small thing, but I do not want international students to be reduced to their economic impact. They are so much more than that.

Having said all that, I do not want to dismiss the concerns that some people have raised about whether pressure on university finances can encourage bad practice, particularly around the use of agents. At UCL, we are confident that international students do not get an unfair advantage and are subject to the same entry standards as UK students, and I think that the vast majority of UK universities would say the same.

It is not implausible, however, that there may be pockets of bad practice and I am pleased that Universities UK has announced that it will review admissions practices across the sector with the aim of rooting that bad practice out. It is deeply unfair to international students that a few isolated examples of poor behaviour should be used to undermine the quality of the majority. It is also unfair to our equally brilliant UK students who might now wonder whether they are at a disadvantage compared to international students when they apply to university.

At UCL, ever since our inception, we have known that diversity is our great strength. We have also known that being a diverse community is not always easy. Here, on our campuses, vastly different experiences, perspectives and opinions coincide and sometimes collide. Learning to embrace difference, to understand that someone can hold very different views from you and still be a great person with whom you want to spend time, to disagree well and not make an ‘other’ of someone who thinks differently, all of this is an important ability. For students of all nationalities who are preparing for global careers in a fast-moving world in which intercultural competency will be a core skill, a richly diverse campus is one of the greatest learning opportunities we can provide.

It is for these reasons that I am grateful to every student, of every nationality, coming to study not only at UCL but across the UK. I will always advocate for their best interests and robustly stand for the dynamic, stimulating, sometimes challenging but ultimately wonderful communities universities create and contribute to. Where there is bad practice it should be rooted out and serious scrutiny is always welcome, however we should not lose sight of the incredible contribution our international communities make to education, research and the social fabric of the UK.

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