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Why it matters that UK higher education says #WeAreInternational

1 August 2017

Professor Sir Keith Burnett

President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Sheffield

In 2013, I made my first visit to India. As vice-chancellor of The University of Sheffield I was keen to visit some of our university partners and spend time with some of the alumni who had graduated over the previous decades in law and medicine, architecture and engineering.

It was a wonderful trip, one which awed me at the potential and talent of the world's largest democracy and a rapidly developing global force. But I was also humbled by the entreaties of our dear graduates, many now senior in their professions, who told me that something was badly amiss.

The UK which had once welcomed them as a second home seemed to have a different spirit. There were concerns about barriers to visas, the introduction of interviews and the loss of post-study work opportunities. They urged me to understand how this felt to the families of talented Indian students who had historically looked to Britain as the provider of outstanding higher education. Could I help?

As it happens, I was already concerned. I'd noticed a growing xenophobia in parts of the media and the way international students were being caught up in our national debate about immigration. It left me bemused. Our universities thrived because they were international. My own experience as a physicist was shaped by the global community of science I had encountered at Oxford and then in the United States. My colleagues and peers came from around the world, as did my brilliant students, and the UK benefitted as a result.

I knew there were practical issues to address. Some Indian agents were implying securing a visa required their paid help, when it did not.

As it happened, a senior civil servant from the Home Office, Jeremy Oppenheim, was in Delhi at the time. Over the best curry I had ever had, we told him the concerns of our graduates. He wanted us to see what was being done locally to make the visa application system better. We went to look. There was a gap between perception and reality.

What we knew though, was that something was being lost in translation. The human experience of a young person applying for a visa, following their dream to be accepted to study in the UK was moving and personal. We wanted to show that mattered.

Jeremy agreed and offered a way to help. We would film two graduates applying to the UK all the way through to the point of arrival. Uniquely, the film would not be branded to our university but designed to be used by all. Jeremy arranged approval from the Home Secretary herself, one Teresa May.

The films of Arshi and Angesh were surprisingly moving and they worked. In fact, they were so effective, we were asked to make an equivalent for China, this time subtitled into English and Chinese. Again, we saw students in their family environment, supported in their commitment to access global education. A father described his daughter's talents and chided her to plan her future. A mother worried about what she would eat. When the visa came through and the daughter beamed with delight, and her father turned to the camera and commented, "You see, her heart has already flown to the UK."

These were the beginnings of the #WeAreInternational campaign - work rooted in a deep belief in the importance of international students to the UK and a desire to communicate the welcome we felt. We could not have known how important this work would become.

In the years that followed, films communicating welcome which could be used by any who work with international students have been endorsed by the GREAT campaign and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Universities UK International, the British Council, UK Council for International Student Affairs and the National Union of Students have all used #WeAreInternational materials.

What began as a shared campaign in my own university with our Students' Union spread to almost include every university across the UK. In my home country of Wales, #WeAreInternational was translated into Welsh. International students and staff took selfies together with UK friends and colleagues, describing their solidarity as they worked on crucial scientific research or began a local hospital shift as a trainee doctor.

And then came Brexit. Suddenly a campaign which had meant to communicate our welcome for students was crucially important to beloved EU national staff who had made Britain their home. Hobsons surveyed potential international students across Europe and found that our films had made a difference to perceptions of the UK as welcoming despite the referendum result. Our supporting partners upped the volume. Students made films and the #WeAreInternational hashtag became a shorthand for values of international solidarity.

Following the election of Donald Trump, a U.S. sister campaign developed, inspired in part by our work. Universities in other countries got in touch and said they thought the campaign mattered and they wanted to adapt it for their own use.

At times the lobbying has felt frustrating and beset by failure, as a national narrative has spoken of international staff, students and universities in ways we had not imagined possible. Despite powerful support from the business community, we have faced opposition to the values which we hold dear as universities.

As one who was taught by scholars who fled to the UK from Nazi Germany and who has taught wonderful students from every continent, I felt I had no choice. British universities - indeed Britain itself - are GREAT because we are international.
What will come next? I cannot be sure. The struggle against a view of scholarship and identity which is defined by nationalism or made rich by openness is as powerfully important as it has ever been in my lifetime.
I can only hope that we make the choices we should. Universities have found themselves speaking for a better way to live together. We dare not fall silent and we will not.


Key Contacts

Clara Plackett

Clara Plackett

Senior Press and Social Media Officer
Universities UK


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