The UK fails to value our English language sector and students – letter to the editor

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Dear Editor

Our exports are falling, farmers are discouraged from farming, fishermen from fishing, miners from mining, windfarms are blocked, and the London Stock Exchange has been overtaken by Paris. There is, however, still one profitable sector where the UK is genuinely a world leader – and Bournemouth is its second most important base.

Publishing, entertainment, tourism, hospitality, bars, nightclubs, casinos, teachers, lecturers, trainers, authors, bankers, universities and colleges, shop owners, taxi drivers, trains, coaches, airlines, exam boards and families with spare rooms all benefit from tens of thousands of foreign students in Bournemouth and Poole every year. These students fill more beds than all hotels and Bed and Breakfast establishments combined, yet they are not even mentioned in council statistics. Now Rishi Sunak is reported to be considering further restrictions on foreign students enrolling on what he now classifies as “low quality” courses – courses which are good enough for UK students and also include English language tuition where necessary.

Study visas were introduced in 2009 under Labour’s Gordon Brown and retained by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition so all the UK’s main parties support them. Initially EU students were exempt, protecting our English language schools, but with Brexit they are now caught in the visa net. Why are foreign students so unfairly singled out? First, visas are an easy tax to collect with few exemptions and few are willing to speak out against them. Increasingly, it seems a cynical attempt to make us believe that the government is being tough on immigration. However, it is actually a deception, killing off one of our last successful businesses and threatening thousands of jobs simply in order to attract a few bigoted voters who cannot tell the difference between overseas students and immigrants. 

Foreign students generate £29 billion yearly, ten times as much as they cost. They heavily subsidise UK university students’ fees which would need to be much higher without them. Overseas students bring revenue equal to £440 for every UK inhabitant as well as cultural and reputational benefits. All this is now at risk from Prime Minister Sunak’s “further restrictions”.

This official hostility to foreign students is nothing new and comes from all parties in various guises. According to a freedom of information request, in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) only one language school out of twenty was awarded Council Business Tax Relief over the Covid-19 period. With a singular lack of even-handedness, retail, hospitality and leisure properties were all eligible, initially for 100% relief. Shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, pubs, hospitality or leisure businesses such as gyms, spas, casinos and hotels, empty buildings, charities, small businesses, local papers, nurseries and even public lavatories could apply. Language Schools were not entitled – with that one odd exception.

The insistence on requiring student visas costing students up to £499 for each course, discriminates by nationality and ability against potential students wishing to study here. Ridiculously, it blocks any who do not already have a good level of English, throwing away profitable opportunities to provide the English courses they require. Anyone on a tourist visa is strictly forbidden from attending any English language courses in the UK. Most medium- and long-term students are required to take out costly medical insurance so they will not be a burden on the NHS. This all needlessly pushes many students to competitor countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Ireland, and even France, Germany, Malta, Japan & China.  It damages the UK language schools, our universities and economy. BCP has the most to lose nationally and we need our Council leaders and MPs to take notice. They need to lobby our Prime Minister to protect local businesses from further policies which might unnecessarily hobble our schools.

Students attending UK English language courses are more likely to attend UK universities. Consequently, it is vital that Sunak takes into consideration the economic importance of further and higher education as well as our language schools. He also needs to bear in mind the potential benefits to us all of keeping alive educational centres of excellence which reward us educationally, culturally and economically while supporting our failing balance of trade. Politically, in this period of worsening and increasingly dangerous international relations our ever more isolated country needs as much influence and soft power, and as many Anglophiles, as possible.

Ian Lawrence