The value of international students for Wales

Phil Parry says we must put more emphasis on retaining international students at Universities in Wales.

International students are vital, and attracting them must be a top priority for our politicians.

This will not be a headline in the forthcoming general election but it should be.

We have some leading universities in Wales who rely to a large extent on students from abroad. The students bring vast amounts of money into the country which is spent in bars, clubs and shops within our communities.

Britain is second only to America as a destination for students from overseas and a key attraction is the language – English not Welsh. But complacency must not be allowed to set inThe numbers have plateaued and in the most recently available figures they dropped for the first time in nearly 30 years.

International students and their governments have become disconcerted by the negative publicity about whether they are welcome here and, in a fiercely competitive market, they have started to look elsewhere. Foreign students stay here for their studies and most head back home afterwards, taking with them their skills and expertise. Some however do stay on to work in the NHS or private industry. A few even create their own businesses – often high-tech – offering new jobs and paying (eventually) tax.

The Home Secretary Theresa May recently floated the idea that foreign students should be deported once they had finished their studies, if they had not found a high-paying job. For this she was slapped down by the Conservative high command and journalists were briefed in no uncertain terms that this would NOT appear in the Tory manifesto.

But the damage was done.

The plan was widely reported abroad and gave the impression that Britain (and Wales) did not welcome students from abroad. By far the biggest proportion of foreign students in Wales is from China.The percentage of Chinese students for Britain as a whole was 19.8 per cent in 2012/13, with those from India a long way behind, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa).

Universities fall over themselves to attract foreign students.

The University of South Wales (the sixth biggest in the UK with 33,500 students) offers an International Welcome Programme for students from abroad for them to make friends and re-orientate themselves. Rental income should not be overlooked either. These students might pay £950 a month for a high-quality two bedroomed flat in Cardiff. The money, which is fed into the community, is often backed by the parents or embassy.

In short, international students are a huge money spinner for Wales.

But it is an enormously competitive market and we compete with some very big global players. At the moment we are holding our head above water – indeed performing well – but the tide may be turning.

All the wrong messages are being sent out and anecdotally foreign students are uncertain whether they are welcome here – they may not encourage others to follow.

That would be a tragedy for Wales as for the rest of the United Kingdom.

Phil Parry is Editor of the investigative website Wales Eye.

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