Brexit, xenophobia and international students: how to combat ‘public paranoia’ over immigration


No sector in the UK has more enthusiastically embraced globalisation than higher education. Top universities have erected campuses in new continents, expanded their share of students from abroad, and touted their instruction of “global citizens”.

The University of Oxford, for example, boasts that its “international profile rivals that of any university in the world”. My own institution labels itself “London’s Global University”.

Such branding doubtlessly appeals to a new footloose class of international elites. Yet as backlash over globalisation surges amid Brexit, UK universities now face their own discontents. This is especially true when it comes to educating “foreign” students.

previous poll has found a sizeable majority of the UK public supports a cap on international students. And according to some university administrators: “Foreign students are being deterred from courses at British universities because of ‘public paranoia’ over immigration.”

>Too many students?

Cultural xenophobia may explain some antipathy toward international students. Yet my own research with Stanford political scientist Carlos X. Lastra Anadón paints a more complex picture. It seems the public’s perceived self-interest also plays a pivotal role in shaping attitudes.

We discovered people were about 15% more likely to favour capping the number of international students when primed to think about them “crowding out” domestic students in university admissions. The bottom line: people are more likely to reject international students when they are perceived as a threat to those people or their children.

Within the ivory towers of progressives, nods to the more intangible benefits of international students – such as diversity and multiculturalism – receive well-deserved praise. Our results, however, suggest that convincing sceptics about the merits of international students also requires appealing to self-interest. By showing how international students help finance home students, for example.

Research by London School of Economics professor Stephen Machin and Richard Murphy at The University of Texas at Austin revealed that by paying higher fees, international students in effect subsidise certain domestic students.

Other benefits

A recent study also highlighted the benefits international students bring to the UK economy. The findings by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan International Pathways revealed how international students outstrip their costs by roughly ten times.

Educating international students can even help to advance the UK’s national interests. Antonio Spilimbergo, economist at the International Monetary Fund, showed how international student exchanges with democratic countries facilitate the spread of democracy abroad.

Likewise, my previous research with Daniel Krcmaric of Northwestern University in the US demonstrated how developing world leaders who are educated in the West are more likely to pursue democratic reforms in their home countries. In the long run, this makes all countries – including the UK – safer and more prosperous.

Valuable skills

If international students do have a downside, it’s that they too often leave after graduation. This deprives the economy of valuable skills. Yet this is a problem with restrictive immigration policies, not talented international students.

As Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of London First, a not for profit advocacy group complained:

With firms struggling to fill skills gaps and vacancies outstripping the people available to fill them, it is economic madness to send these talented youngsters packing as soon as their studies are over.

As someone who teaches at one of the world’s most international universities, I know firsthand the unique benefits of international students. Balancing a global student body with a commitment to the nation isn’t a zero-sum game. UK universities know this, but they need to do better at explaining why.

If, as my research shows, self-interest drives public support for international students, then it’s essential that Britons know the facts. International students offer myriad advantages for the UK – and they should be welcomed with open arms.

Author Bio: Thomas Gift is a Lecturer of Political Science and Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Programme at UCL