The PIE: Tell me about your journey from student to becoming International Students’ Officer at NUS?
Yinbo Yu: I came to the UK in 2010 when it still had lots of great immigration policies to welcome international students, such as the post-study work visa. Following my primary and secondary schooling in China, a largely ethnically homogenous society, my education and personal development benefited greatly from the huge diversity of cultures present in the UK.
It was a great experience on campus in the UK. I was really involved in student union activities and I was the president of the Chinese student society at the University of East Anglia.
The PIE: Was it a transformative experience?
YY: It was transformative for me to experience life in the UK and to have a better understanding of, for example, what students are frustrated by.
Also, I can speak for some of my Chinese friends: we were frustrated to realise in 2012 that the post-study work visa was scrapped, it was one of the biggest shocks for international students back then and we felt really powerless.
I think that was one of the most important parts of my journey, that shaped my political views and how I want to defend international student’s rights.
So I got involved in the international students’ campaign of NUS and I created a national network of resilience against the systematic barriers and flaws that I want to improve.
“Everyone is trying to send a really clear message out that international students are not harming our society”
NUS and the activism space made me feel like I was not alone dealing with issues – I felt like we were walking together as a collective movement. After I moved to London to do my Master’s, I was elected to the Committee for International Students’ Campaign.
I had the opportunity to go to parliament and talk about my personal issues with visas and other situations affecting students – those opportunities opened my eyes and I never knew I had the ability to do this.
The PIE: The last time we spoke was at the launch of the #StudentsOfTheWorld campaign – where is that currently at?
YY: It’s really exciting – the purpose [of the campaign] is to highlight the importance of international education and student mobility. With continued uncertainty around Brexit, we are really worried about EU students’ status.
This campaign is a creative way for NUS to spread our message out and to empower international students to tell their story not only on our platform but on every single campus and classroom.
We are really looking forward to the next stage with the MAC inquiry and we are working closely with UCISA, UUKi and also the UK Association of Colleges.
We don’t just cover the HE sector, but also the FE sector, because even the Erasmus+ program, it does affect a lot of schools that have it in their program as well.
We are still in the phase of promoting the campaign and we are having the International Student Conference at the end of February where we will hear more stories. MAC will have people coming to our conference to meet our students face to face and hear the stories.
So through our #StudentsOfTheWorld campaign and campaigns like UUKi’s Go International, everyone is trying to send a really clear message out that international students are not harming our society.
The PIE: What does the government need to do to ensure the UK remains an attractive destination for international students?
YY: I think the government needs to implement a policy that makes students feel welcome here. Including international students in the net migration target is really harmful; students are made to feel like they are part of a number that we are aiming to reduce.
“We were frustrated to realise in 2012 that the post-study work visa was scrapped, it was one of the biggest shocks for international students back then and we felt really powerless”
For example, you can see lots of headlines from Chinese and Indian newspapers branding Theresa May as the ‘international student killer’ or pieces talking about how after Brexit, the UK will become less and less attractive. That really is harming the education sector and also the wellbeing of the students currently here.
The PIE: Do you believe the loss of the post-study work visa is still the main deterrent to international students choosing the UK?
YY: Yes, the loss of the post-study work visa is a major issue because the home office is claiming abuse of the system before 2012, but we can confidently say that lots of that data was flawed.
Last August, over 97% of international students were shown to return home after their studies, yet the Home Office claimed we were exploiting the system and trying to stay here to work illegally. I would urge the Home Office, the government and Theresa May especially to be more open-minded and willing to listen to the sector’s voice.
From a student’s perspective, I was personally heartbroken back in 2012 when it was cancelled, as were many others around me.
The PIE: You have been quite vocal on your views about the government, what is your opinion on the recent reshuffle?
YY: I think it is interesting that before the reshuffle, everyone except Theresa May was in favour to take international student numbers out of net migration targets.
Now we have the public affairs team here [at NUS] working to meet with the [new cabinet] and build a relationship, but also to understand what is the position on the international students, whether it is the migration targets or the post-study work visas – everything.
I met with Vivienne Stern recently talking about how important it is not only for the new minister, but the Office for Students, to talk about international students because there is nothing [being said].
If you look at the new strategy, [the government] never talk about international students.
I just think there are so many uncertainties for international students in the future, especially with the incoming immigration white paper in terms of Brexit and EU student numbers. Our international student members are feeling so vulnerable – they just want some clear lines.
The PIE: With all the students you meet with, what is the general feeling towards Brexit now?
YY: Everyone is still a bit anxious about the uncertainties. There is still lots of anxiety about the Erasmus+ program, student mobility and staff mobility. Also, how can we ensure that we can give our students the best experience?
“There are lots of services being cut due to limited budgets, but millions are being spent on creating marketing departments to reach out to other countries”
I worry about my EU students and I don’t want anyone to go through visa restrictions, I worry about their future rights in the UK and their post-study employability.
Not everything is Brexit-centric, but we are using our position to try and get the best outcome for our students, which is why we created The Great Education Exchange board game.
The PIE: We have talked about the government, but what more could institutions be doing to encourage international students to study in the UK?
YY: I think – and it’s a big criticism from me – but I can see from my experience of working with certain universities, that lots, unfortunately, have been focusing on the commercial and marketing side.
Millions of pounds have been spent on student recruitment, which is important, but what is being missed out on is student support services for current students. For example, mental health support on campus or academic support for international students.
I can see that lots of universities are taking actions to tackle these issues, but it’s not enough. If there are not enough support systems for students who face extra barriers, it can be a huge threat because all our international students going back to their home countries are not only a soft power, they are ambassadors of UK education.
Universities shouldn’t just be commercialised, we should focus on the education itself and the wellbeing of students.
There are lots of services being cut due to limited budgets, but millions are being spent on creating marketing departments to reach out to other countries.
The PIE: Do you think there is a particular country the UK should be targeting for students?
YY: We are seeing a big drop in Indian students since 2012 and the loss of post-study work visa, and obviously China is a massive market but there is some concern about relying so heavily on the Chinese market.
I wouldn’t give any recommendations, but rather than thinking about who is the next China, I would ask why don’t we focus on how we can improve our reputation to make sure the UK as a country, London as a city and the UK’s universities are truly global and inclusive.
If we do, international students will go home and talk about what a transformative experience they had in the UK. But to do that, we need to ensure we make future students feel welcome.
We know that one in seven world leaders were educated in the UK; we surely don’t want this to stop because of the harmful message about immigration or fears about Brexit.