Is LUSU’s stance on the Immigration Bill and what it will entail misinformed? – Response from LUSU President

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John Aspinwall either didn’t read or didn’t get my arguments. A shame for international students, but I’m still standing by them, and here’s why.

I’m open to a good debate. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have taken a year out of my life to be Students’ Union President. In fact, it seems to be that it’s what I’ve spent the majority of my term in office doing so far: arguing for better representation of liberations groups within our Union, arguing for better working conditions and pay for postgraduates to be improved, and arguing for student loans to be kept in public hands.

And so here I find myself, again, arguing that international students aren’t a political plaything that the Government can take advantage of.

As I’ve previously stated, I recently met with the Conservative Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, and detailed my thoughts on our Union’s website on the proposed changes to immigration law that would mean international students would have to pay a lump sum on top of their visa before even entering the UK to be able to access even the most basic of NHS services. In short, if you’re an international student coming over with a family, you could be paying up to £4,000 extra just to enter the country. This can mean some postgraduate students will have to stump up nearly £24,000 for their first year of study. Now, I’m of the opinion that £9,000 is far too much for a single year of study, so £24,000 is positively eye-watering in its ridiculousness.

I think, and hope, that pretty much everybody would agree with me that I’m right to be making noise about this.

But alas, no. I’m now aware that a comment piece for SCAN, by a certain Aspinwall, has taken issue with some of the ideas and reasons I put forward for standing by international students.

I must address, first, some of his legitimate points regarding some arguments I made. I asserted that the NHS has “never been a contribution based system” and that the NHS is “free for anybody to use”. These probably need some clarification. The NHS has never been a DIRECTLY contribution based system – indeed, it is mainly funded via National Insurance which also is earmarked for state pensions and welfare payments as well as the health service, but also by other taxation and revenue streams coming in to the Treasury. To ask students, one small, specific demographic of people, to pay a lump sum unlike everyone else merely increases the growing feeling that if you weren’t born here, you quite simply aren’t welcome. Well at least not unless you’re willing to cross our palm with silver.

“But they aren’t contributing!” I hear you cry. Well no, not directly – at least not if you ignore the over £7.9 billion that international students contribute to the UK economy on an annual basis – but neither are babies or the unemployed, but (Benefits Street-style austerity propaganda aside) we’re not quite so ready to consign them to the dustbin of consumerism. And that just because they happened to be born here. “Ah but they will hopefully contribute themselves later on!” comes the response. Well yes. And so will those highly educated young people who have chosen to come to Britain for its world class education. Maybe we should, you know, be encouraging them to call the UK home, not pulling up the drawbridge? Or do we really think we can do without more than £7.9 billion a year given the tough financial climate we find ourselves in? Kill the golden goose by all means, but do so at your peril Mr. Harper.

So yes, I concede that whilst my original article was probably sloppily worded, the spirit of it in those two instances still stands. If Aspinwall wishes to focus an entire debate on my own clumsy turn of phrase then that is his prerogative, but I’d rather keep the spotlight on the bigger issues.

Issues like the fact that we have seen, for the first time ever, a fall in the number of international students coming to this country. We are in a higher education climate that isn’t just in need of but utterly dependent on international students. If they stop coming a key source of revenue disappears and where do you expect the universities and government will push to make up the lost funds? Call me a cynic but with Vice-Chancellors calling for higher tuition fees, it wouldn’t be too much of stretch to see Government bending over backwards to accommodate.

Furthermore, Aspinwall made the assertion that I had destroyed my own argument based purely on economics, and yet failed to look at the wider financial ramifications of demonising international students. He failed to look at the wider contribution to the UK economy, the decrease in international student numbers and the fact that long-term, it’s almost certainly better for any economy to have a highly educated, globalised workforce. If anything, his focus on a small piece of my argument shows he hasn’t properly grasped the numbers himself.

As for my “looking like a rabbit in the headlights”? Well I’ll let the readers decide for themselves, but I’m pretty sure it was the Honourable Mark Harper MP, scarpering out of a side door rather than leave the main entrance to face a sizeable student protest (hat-tip to LUAC in particular), who looked particularly out of his depth.

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