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Archive for February, 2010

The story earlier this week that the British government planned to tighten restrictions on student visas reminds me of a passage from Pietra Rivoli’s excellent book the Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. Rivoli discusses the protectionist measures the British Parliament introduced during the late 17th century to shield British wool from Asian cotton. Rivoli writes (p. 154-5):

When this attempt to dictate dress failed, the woolen interests turned their attention to less powerful groups. It was argued quite shamelessly that even the poorest could afford a bit of wool in their wardrobe: An act at the same time introduced to the Parliament required all female English servants earning 5 pounds or less to wear only woolen hats…

But in the end, by 1700, Parliament had granted woolen’s wishes for only one group of consumers, a group that didn’t get itchy in wool, the one group that was less powerful than female servants. An act, passed easily, stipulated that:

No corpse of any person … shall be buried in any shirt, shift, sheet or shroud … other than what is made of sheep’s wool only.

For this event, like many others, there was a little poem:

Since the living would not bear it
They should when dead be forced to wear it.

Foreign students wield about as much influence as the low paid maids and corpses awaiting burial of 1700. Unfortunately, both Labour and the Conservatives are turning their attention to this vulnerable population in a competition to pander to the anti-immigrant set. In the name of closing loopholes, a number of measures are being considered from the inconvenient and intrusive to the downright punitive. Proposals include: prohibiting dependents accompanying students on short term courses, stopping dependents from working, cutting the hours per week that a student can work (from 20 to 10), requiring a deposit that is forfeited if the student does not leave the UK, banning moving from course to course, requiring further visa applications physically in the home country rather than the UK, and universities withholding degree certificates until a student proves they have returned home (BBC).

As I wrote earlier, I’m unimpressed by this raise the drawbridge mentality. Overall, foreign students are an asset to any country; in the UK foreign students contribute billions in tuition fees. Let alone the contributions to the wider economy and educational environment. But for politicians seeking a quick headline, foreign students and immigrants generally provide easy targets.

Full disclosure, as an American who studied in the UK (and Germany) I have an interest in these types of policy matters. Although I didn’t have dependents during the course of my studies, some of my American friends studying in the UK did. So my personal experiences color my vision of the whole get tough on the foreigners posture. Even conceding some loopholes need to be closed, I’d address solutions towards verifying the legitimacy of the courses of study; issues like further restricting the number of hours foreign students can work are tangents. And some of the punitive stuff being floated is just senseless pandering to the worst impulses in the electorate. For instance, given you’re attending a legitimate program, why should you study abroad without your spouse?

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