New language tests miss the bigger picture

Matthew Hall explains how Theresa May’s stricter foreign language tests could put the British economy in peril

19th October 2015

After Theresa May outlined potential plans to impose stricter foreign language tests on international students coming to Britain at the Conservative Party Conference, this writer began to wonder if us Brits are missing a trick. International students should not be viewed as a burden, but as an opportunity instead.

Take this hypothetical situation. Twenty students sit in a classroom in a university in Chengdu, southwest China, listening attentively to a teacher explaining the nuances of a particularly difficult grammar rule. They come from various countries around the world, attracted by a multitude of scholarships provided by the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government agency offering incentives for foreigners to study in higher education institutions spanning the width and breadth of the country. It is hoped that these students, some of whom came to China unable to speak a single word of Mandarin Chinese, will become fluent speakers and then continue their studies in fields such as law, business, or science. This is part of China’s strategy for its transition towards an ever-increasingly globalised economy, whereby workers with niche skills from overseas countries can complement the skills of local workers.

In stark contrast, policy-makers in Whitehall – in particular, the Home Secretary Theresa May – are intent on introducing reforms to the education system with the clear objective of reducing the number of international students in British universities. Stricter English language tests will be introduced, visa rules will be tightened, and students will be forced to leave the United Kingdom immediately after finishing their degrees. Figures from The Times suggest that the number of international students will drop by tens of thousands.

Policy-makers are intent on introducing reforms to the education system with the clear objective of reducing the number of international students

May’s ideas are, however, pure folly. By creating an atmosphere whereby international students are perceived as unwelcome and detrimental to universities, a broad cross-section of students will be deterred from applying to UK higher education institutions.

Two of my friends who wanted to study engineering in Europe were initially considering studying in the UK but, after hearing about its draconian policies regarding international students, quickly changed their minds and opted for a university in Germany which provides a year of intensive classes studying the German language before starting the main element of their studies in engineering. And despite the hard-line rhetoric on clamping down on international students emanating from Whitehall, the UK’s education system will not be able to address its problems by chasing away would-be students; most notably, there is a high possibility that science and technology departments, currently propped up by a vast number of international students, are going to encounter even more difficulties in filling lecture halls. No longer can universities rely on students uniquely from the United Kingdom, and in today’s interconnected world we should embrace international students with different ideas, mentalities and experiences to replenish our higher education system.

I was fortunate enough to study abroad in China, despite my initial shortfalls in speaking Mandarin Chinese, and I came away well aware that the time was a perfect case study of soft power; China had integrated me into its society and shaped my views of the country as a whole. It would be incredibly foolish if Theresa May were to ignore the aspect of soft power interlinked with studying in a foreign country, and her approach to international students risks allowing the UK’s education system to become insular, stagnant and completely unfit for purpose.

By Matthew Hall

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