International students enrich cities like Coventry – but that could change

Coventry Cathedral next to a museum and university building. Image: Herry Lawford/Creative Commons.

More than 440,000 students from outside the UK come to study at British universities every year, and they have a transformative impact on both the places where they study, and the places they live. 

As new research published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan shows, the gross benefits of the UK hosting international students stands at £22.6bn – dwarfing the costs of hosting them by 10:1. This works out as £310 per every UK resident.

Universities UK recently calculated that international students contribute £25.6bn to the UK economy per year – with over £5bn of this being spent on off-campus goods and services. Their spending is such that they support over 200,000 jobs in the UK, in many of the cities where this work is absolutely critical to the local economy.

It is often thought that London is the main beneficiary of international students, but the benefits of international students are being felt across the UK.

Coventry is a particularly good example of this.


A city with a proud history, the number of international students there has been steadily increasing in recent years, with the number of international students from outside of the EU increasing by over 2,000 since 2010, and 7,900 non-EU international students enrolling in courses in 2016.

As the editor of the Coventry Telegraph Keith Perry put it to readers: “Money follows money and the student pound can entice the investors and developers, which brings more of us back to our city centre rather than heading out to Solihull.

“Before you know it, we might even be able to persuade John Lewis, the store you tell us you want, to pitch up in Coventry.”

The array of businesses in Coventry which benefit from international students is something which is replicated throughout the country. One local taxi firm described the increasing number of international students in the city as “an absolute godsend”, while a restaurant owner described international students as “absolutely crucial” to the success of their business. 

Across university towns, the impact that international students have on the local economy is widely felt. Be it taxi companies, restaurants, or bars and nightclubs, international students leave a lasting impression on the cities in which they study.

Yet, for all the good that international students bring to UK cities, the number choosing to study at British universities is stalling. At the same time, our global competitors, Canada and Australia, are surging ahead.

The inclusion of students in the government’s net migration target, the difficulties in gaining a student visa as well as the barriers in being able to work after graduating, all account for why this lucrative market of international students is looking elsewhere. The decisions taken by this government in recent years have been interpreted abroad to mean: international students are not welcome in the UK.

While the UK is pulling up the drawbridge, its competitors have been rolling out the red carpet to this market to such an extent that the global higher education market has grown by 34 per cent since 2010. This is a higher education party to which the UK has been invited, but is declining to attend.

It is vital that cities across the UK trumpet the benefits that international students bring to them. Too often, people think of the benefits of international students as being merely in the classroom, whereas the reality is that their benefits are felt throughout a city.

It is true that the UK needs a tough visa regime and strong immigration policy, but polling has consistently shown that the UK public clearly differentiate between international students and long-term migrants. Three quarters of the public do not see students as migrants.

Cities all over the UK – and Coventry is just one example – are crying out for more international students and it is vital that government acts to create a more encouraging visa regime for international students, which promotes UK higher education for what it is: one of our best and most lucrative exports to the world.

Sarah Williamson is a spokeswoman for Destination for Education, a campaign to recruit international students to the UK.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.