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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.