With 680,000 international students enrolled at UK universities, rabid reactionaries in the Tory Party are looking to limit the intake of overseas students, in an effort to bring down migration numbers.
This suggestion has caused a backlash amongst the more ‘sensible’ ministers and MPs, however, who understand that reducing the number of international students flies in the face of the interests of university bosses, and of British capitalism more widely.
One MP said that this policy would be a “disaster”, and would “destabilise the future of the UK economy [and] the UK role in the world, post-Brexit”.
After all, international students pay exorbitant fees – more than three times what domestic students pay; they spend tens of thousands of pounds during their studies; and they are likely to stay in Britain as skilled workers after they graduate.
With university finances in crisis, higher education (HE) bosses are cutting costs any way they can: attacking pay and conditions; suspending or closing courses; and propping themselves up by relying on whatever income they can scrape together.
International students’ fees are therefore crucial for HE institutions to stay above water. As one professor told the BBC:
“Most universities for most courses lose money on teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students. If you close down the international route I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”
Although universities in Britain have non-profit status, and are technically public institutions, they still exist within capitalism. They are therefore driven by the same cold capitalist logic as other businesses – of maximising revenue and driving down labour costs. The marketisation of higher education has made this logic all the more prevalent.
The average undergraduate international student pays £22,000 a year in fees. And collectively, overseas students spend £26 billion each year in the UK economy. From the perspective of British capitalism, therefore, this clampdown makes no sense.
Indeed, universities are becoming increasingly reliant on international students, to compensate for losses suffered by the caps on tuition fees for domestic students.
University managers are cynically treating overseas students as cash cows, to plug the gaping holes on their balance sheets. One consultant even remarked that “some universities may more or less pull out” of offering full-time undergraduate degrees to UK students.
Clearly, the wheels are coming off for the marketised model of higher education. Reducing the number of overseas students will only exacerbate this crisis.
This was openly admitted by the new deputy chair of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson, who said that he wanted to fight the next election on “a mix of culture wars and [the] trans debate”.
The attack on overseas students is the latest example of this cynical strategy – linked to the government’s wider campaign against migrants, and the Tory Brexiteers attempts to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders.
Discussions on this issue are still at an early stage. But the trajectory that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman want to pursue is clear: to cut down the numbers of international students in a short-sighted effort to ‘improve’ immigration figures.
According to the Financial Times, some of the options being discussed include: shortening student visa lengths, to make it harder to stay in the UK after courses have finished; and preventing students from switching to work visas during their studies.
This would deter international students from coming to Britain, by making it harder for them to study and work.
From the point of view of the British capitalists, this makes it less likely that these graduates will be available for exploitation by UK businesses and bosses once their degrees finish.
Splits and divisions
So-called ‘moderate’ Tories, by contrast, know that this latest culture war ploy is not in the interests of the bosses as a whole.
The capitalists have no problem in principle with using xenophobia and discrimination to divide and exploit the working class.
But this attack on overseas students is a clear case of the narrow electoral interests of the Tories coming into conflict with the interests of British capitalism as a whole – depriving the bosses of skilled labour that they desperately need, and hurting the finances of UK universities.
This is yet another example of the degeneracy, myopia, and recklessness of the leading representatives of the ruling class; itself a reflection of the special crisis of British capitalism.
Rishi Sunak may be basking in the adulation of the establishment media for now. But divisions and splits such as these are symptomatic of tensions and instability that will ultimately be the ruin of the Tory leader – and of the entire rotten system that they defend.
Unite and fight
What is abundantly clear from this furore is that neither ‘sensible’ Tory ministers nor rabid culture warriors are concerned about the interests of students or workers.
We can’t rely upon ‘liberal’ politicians and bosses to protect us. They may cry crocodile tears over the restrictions on international students. But they are only interested in boosting their profits. And ultimately, they uphold a system that relies on bigotry and division.
Instead, workers and students can only rely on their own strength. We must fight the Tories’ culture war with class war.
We must link these struggles together, as part of a national mobilisation to bring down the Tories and their bankrupt system.
The wealth exists to easily solve the financial crisis facing universities. But it sits in the hands of the billionaires and bankers.
Instead of using international students as cash cows to fund higher education, this super-rich elite should be expropriated. And universities should be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and HE bosses, and put under the democratic control of staff and students.
On this basis, by kicking capitalism out of HE, we could provide high-quality, free education to domestic and international students alike.