Court them good, Mr Cable

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This week, South America has received two distinguished visitors: UK’s business minister Vince Cable and universities minister David Willetts. Their intent is to recruit more international students to study in the United Kingdom. They want more people to study in their universities, just like I did.

Being educated in the UK was, frankly, a dream come true for me. My unimaginative motivation for this, perhaps just stereotypic enough to be plausible, was my love for English literature. More specifically, my love for Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the first book I read entirely in English. It was a bit of a revelation; I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what kind of writer just yet, but I wanted to study where JK Rowling lived. Of course, today and when I decided to accept Sheffield’s offer, I had different and more relevant reasons to do so.

One of these reasons was the Post-Study Work Visa, an opportunity for international graduates to find work after uni by giving them an extra two years to stay in the country and seek permanent employment. I was planning to apply as soon as I possibly could, and I was so happy that going to a university in the UK was opening that door for me.

And so I went off to my adventure. It was wonderful, I learned a lot and I made friends. I built a life, I got part time jobs, I earned money. I made contacts and did a lot of networking. I did some work experience at the Independent, the Sheffield Star, the Week Magazine, and many other British publications. I applied for reporter jobs and got interviews.

Never, in my three and a half years of studying there, did I feel unwelcome.

That is, until the Post-Study Work Visa got scrapped by the Tory government. Though warned by many that this would decrease the number of international students coming from all over the world, they did it anyway. And it was scrapped five months before I graduated, which meant I couldn’t apply for it – even though I was under the impression, even before I paid my tuition, that I would be able to do so.

But then, I wasn’t. And of course, that was terrible. But the most irritating and damaging thing of all, was being treated as a statistic. Everyone was talking about it, but I didn’t hear one single student giving their opinion on mainstream media. Maybe they weren’t asked, maybe they were scared. I just want to make clear we are not ‘immigrants’ or ‘leechers’. We’re people, people who can be trusted.

And then, for the first time, I felt unwelcome. I felt unwelcome even though I had never missed a check in with the Sheffield police while I lived there, like the law says I have to do. I felt unwelcome even though I felt like I was equal to all my British friends. I felt unwanted.

Now Vince Cable is visiting my country to convince more of us to come to his country. Why? According to a BBC report, UK universities are extremely reliant on international student fees for funding – and they will become even more dependent on this income in the next few years as the UK tries to battle the financial crisis. It would all be fabulous and groovy to believe that Vince Cable is really looking to spread better education and mix up different cultures, but the truth is that it’s all about the money.

Studying abroad has its obvious attractions; a new country, the opportunity to learn in a different environment, meeting people from other nationalities, etc. Despite this seductive promise, the UK has seen a decline in the number of applicants from India by 23.5% and Pakistan by 13.4%. As for Brazil, in the academic year of 2011-2012, there were only 1,340 Brazilians studying in the United Kingdom.

Last year, the number of international applicants grew by only 1.5% – a figure analysts consider insignificant as education is a growing market. If it was all going well, the growth number would be larger.

If this wasn’t a problem for the UK, Mr Cable wouldn’t have travelled this far to recruit South American students.

Non-EU students are expected to bring in an estimated £8bn a year to British economy and 10% of universities’ funding is actually paid for by these students. It’s quite clearly a huge business, and not an effort to improve the minds of the future.

Numbers of applications are decreasing simply because the UK seems to be an unwelcoming country to foreign students. Scrapping the Post-Study Work Visa isn’t just a message to all non-EU students that they are not welcome anymore. It is an intimation that international students are cash cows.

When the students are done paying the last instalment of their tuition, they are no longer funding UK education – so please, get out of the country. No more money? No more opportunities for you. You’re disposable! We only wanted your money.

So you could say, Mr Cable, that foreigners feel unwelcome in the United Kingdom at the moment. After the visa program was cancelled, I felt shunned in a place that had previously opened its arms to me. Studying abroad is supposed to give you more, not less, opportunities. It is supposed to create a new life for students, a different one than what they had before.

If a student falls in love with Britain and wants to contribute to its society, and make it better – why not give them the chance to try and do that? If it has been proven that mere students bring in billions of pounds that help the economy, imagine what these future professionals could bring in. Diversity is good for the economy, it is the source of fresh ideas, innovative businesses, rich culture and hard-work.

But now, Mr Cable, you have a lot of work before you. Try your hardest because it’s not looking good.

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Photo by bisgovuk (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) / Flickr Creative Commons License

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