As a student of modern languages back in the day, I was lucky to spend my ‘Year Abroad’ as a teaching assistant near Frankfurt in Germany, before going to Berlin as an Erasmus student during the third year of my PhD.
My early research career was thoroughly international too, having received a Commonwealth Scholarship to undertake postdoctoral research in Canada for a year, before being funded by the Berlin Parliament for another project back in the German capital.
My international education and research experience is a major part of what has shaped me, and it is what drives me as a sector leader today to stand up for the many international students choosing to make the UK part of their own educational journeys.
Nowadays, whenever I speak about my previous international education experiences, I am usually met with comments about the amazing opportunities I have had and how much I must have learned by immersing myself in other languages and cultures. Nobody has ever questioned the burden I may have created for the German or Canadian taxpayers, or whether my being in those countries was contributing to unnecessary immigration.
One reason for that is that outward mobility is still, sadly, somewhat of a novelty here in the UK, so those going abroad for extended periods of study tend to be viewed with curiosity and fascination.
Another reason is the uncomfortable truth that, in Britain, we are generally not accustomed to seeing ourselves as immigrants, especially unwanted immigrants. So, whenever we look skeptically at the rising numbers of international students coming to our shores, we have to remember we are no more entitled to a free pass into other countries and their education systems than their citizens are to ours.
A third reason is that I clearly came back. Like most international students, I chose to return to my ‘home’ country after my various stints of international study, bringing my knowledge, contacts and experiences back to bear as part of my career progression in the UK.
However, the reason I have those experiences is because both Germany and Canada generously opened their doors to me and provided me with not only a great education, but lifelong memories and friendships. That’s why they retain a special place in my heart, and I shall always look upon them and their citizens favourably in any future interactions. This is the ‘soft power’ legacy of my international higher education.
Working as I do today, then, to promote higher education in the UK and specifically in London, it is comforting to know that, at the end of their placements or courses, the many thousands of international students who come to Britain each year will likely head back home with the same sense of gratitude and affection for the UK as I feel for my former host countries.
And, like mine, their social networking sites will be full of contacts they made while at UK universities from across the globe. Many of these will be fellow international students, as well as local residents, and some will perhaps turn out to be useful business contacts or strategic partners in the future.
The benefits of international education are lifelong, irrespective of whether we are outbound visitors to other countries or opening our own doors to inward international student flows.
In the UK, we rightly celebrate the massive economic gains that international students bring to our nation, which now stand at an impressive £37 billion of net benefit generated by each new cohort of first-year overseas students, or £9.6 billion from international students in London alone.
“We must not overlook the hidden economic benefits that also arise from the lifelong contacts borne from international education exchanges”
Yet, we must not overlook the hidden economic benefits that also arise from the lifelong contacts borne from international education exchanges. These could include future cross-border commercial projects, international research collaborations or even transnational business growth – and, at the very least, they maintain demand for future international travel and tourism, as lifelong friendships are nurtured and personal milestones such as weddings, christenings and reunions are celebrated.
International education is but a starting point to future possibilities, not just for individuals but for governments, businesses and national economies. If we viewed those international students that choose to study among us with the same admiration and respect as we give those from our own society opting to study overseas, we might just recognise the enormous potential we otherwise take for granted from our truly international communities.
About the author: Diana Beech is chief executive officer of London Higher.