From 2008 to 2011, I studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia, an establishment with more than 3,500 international students (or a third of the 2012-13 in take). In the three years I spent there, I met and made friends with students from California, Thailand and Nigeria; Russia, Australia and Malawi; Pakistan, Belgium and Tanzania.
In my first year, I lived on campus in the architectural rarity that is the UEA Ziggurats. My room was small but perfectly formed and I delighted in the rare personal freedom that I was allowed there. Sandwiched by Jao from Portugal, Stacey from Boston – and with Maiko from Japan just down the hall – students from all over the world lived together under one roof. Above, below and side-by-side, one of the most poignant aspects of this multicultural cohabitation was that everyone was in the same position, on the threshold of a new chapter in life without the apparent prejudices or inequalities of their respective ethnicities. Housed inside our little concrete boxes of opportunity, we took to the task of education like a pack of hungry wolves.
My hallmates and I regularly ate together, taking it in turns to stage themed nights. It was the first time I ate real sushi and the last time I drank copious amounts of Sake. Not since that year have I eaten such a diverse (and boozy) parade of foodstuffs.
As a domestic student, it was a truly multicultural experience and to this day, I have strong connections with people in countries I’ve never been to. Thanks to the wonders of the web, I’ve been able to nurture these friendships and this has inadvertently created cornerstones in a world that I’ve barely started exploring.
Before going to university, my experience of other cultures was limited. Everyone at my state school was born and raised in our home town and aside from holidays to over-populated resorts in Europe (where you’re much more likely to bump into a fellow Brit than a local) I’d never had much contact with “international” people. As such, university taught me important lessons about ethnicity and culture, in that no matter where you’re from, when you’re put into a nurturing learning environment with like-minded people, you’re sure to blossom.
Despite this fortuitous discovery, it has recently been announced that in 2012, there was a 22 per cent drop in the number of foreign students studying in the UK. Following a tightening of VISA controls and a politicised crack down on immigration, official figures showed that in 2012 a net total of 153,000 migrant students came to the UK (down from 242,000 in 2011).
This news came as a shock to me. International students were paramount to my university experience – offering as much of an education as my actual degree, if not more. And yet despite the many opportunities available for international students in the UK, not to mention the hugely beneficial impact they have on the economy, David Cameron has decided to strengthen his policies against them. Oddly, the umbrella term “immigrant” still refers to international students – even though most of the EU does not recognise or practise this categorisation.
Let’s not forget that international students have to pay through the nose for their degrees, sometimes as much as three times the price of domestic students. You’d think that at a time of extreme economic fragility the prime minister would want to encourage one of the country’s most lucrative exports rather than making potential pound signs feel unwelcome. That’s not the half of it. A report by Oxford Economics estimated that the GDP generated by international students at the University of Exeter directly supports 2,480 jobs in the city. And above all else, international students play a vital role in academic research labs, particularly in science, engineering and maths – accounting for around 45% of the UK’s postgraduate students. These bright young things are willingly committing their lives to crucial research and yet UK politicians are trying to discourage them? It doesn’t make sense on any level.
We must not discredit just how valuable immigrants and international students are. They provide a context and a deeper understanding of what is an increasingly multicultural country. To deny that is to pull the wool over your own eyes. Multiculturalism should be embraced and celebrated, not chastised. By opening our minds and our communities to the culture of others, we are given a greater understanding of what it means to be human.
Emily Buchanan is a professional writer living in Norwich, UK. She’s passionate about the environment, education and human rights – subjects you’ll mostly find her writing/ranting about. Follow Emily on Twitter for the latest.