Hugo de Burgh: Controls on international students should discriminate - and it is in our interests to be very positive towards the Chinese
Hugo de Burgh is Director of The China Media Centre, a research institute and a business which pays its way by selling its expertise on both the UK and the Chinese media. He is Professor of Journalism at the University of Westminster and at Tsinghua University, and International Dean at Xinan University of Policy & Legislation. He is also chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum in Suffolk Coastal.
Calls to make it more difficult for international students to come here alarm me. Not because I want to see more terrorists in Britain but because the controls may be indiscriminate.
I want more overseas students here – Chinese students in particular, because I am the business of studying China and building connections between the UK and China. But also because they are good for the UK. It is fair to generalise that they will work hard, have no truck with terrorists and remain on friendly terms with the UK when they go back home. The Chairman of the Banking Reform Commission and other Chinese Ministers are UK graduates; several of my former students have influential posts in the media; the future value of their goodwill and that of thousands of others is incalculable.
Apart from that reason there are at least three others why we should welcome Chinese students. The second is a very practical one. Since the UK earns over £600 million a year overall from them (some say £1 billion), many university departments badly need them. But, third, it’s not just that they need them for financial reasons; universities such as Imperial may actually prefer them, since their schooling has prepared them for serious university courses. Of course, like any British patriot, I regret very much that some of our schools do not prepare applicants well enough. Until Michael Gove has put this situation right, the best applicants should get into our universities, even if they are not British, in order to keep standards high.
Fourth, we need them also because we are beginning to learn from them. Shadow Universities Minister David Willetts (as pictured) has taken time out in China to see just how remarkable is Chinese economic achievement, propelling China very rapidly into a position of enormous influence on the rest of the world, and its importance to our universities. Others are less alert to the rapid developments in culture, politics, education and innovation. Experiments in school teaching, investments in creativity, public participation are coming about in places nobody in DCMS has ever heard of; scientific and engineering achievements of the very near future will come from universities our Vice Chancellors know nothing about.
Finally, when Chinese graduates do stay here they can usually be relied upon, like their less qualified compatriots in the takeaways, to work hard, pay taxes and consider welfare benefits to be shameful.
Now a similar case may well be made out for many other classes of visitor, I don’t know. What I do know is that the visa system as it affects Chinese is already onerous. Expensive, complicated and time-consuming, it often appears unjust too. This year the China Media Centre has already had several people rejected, including some well known to us, on trivial grounds. For those classes of visitor with a good track record, we do not need more controls. A large deposit or bond for students will not frighten away Terrorists, they seem to have no problem getting cash; but it will mean that poorer students for whom study abroad is already a massive investment, sacrificed by bevies of aunties and grandparents, won’t come.
What we do need is discrimination. Discrimination between territories and ethnicities according to the likely threat or benefit to this country of their being admitted. Where there is no threat there should be screening but not an onerous regime; where we know there is the possibility of terrorism, controls should be as tough as we can make them.