UK student visa policy could shut out future leaders, says thinktank

Higher Education Policy Institute says 55 current world leaders attended British universities, and country benefits ‘enormously’ from these links

More than 50 current presidents, prime ministers and monarchs were educated at UK universities, but Britain risks losing international influence if its punitive student visa policy shuts out future leaders, a thinktank has said.

The Higher Education Policy Institute said 55 serving world leaders from 51 countries – ranging from Antigua to Yemen – attended British higher education institutions, with Manchester, Oxford and the Royal military academy at Sandhurst among the most popular.

Commonwealth countries are well represented on the list – Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, attended Oxford university – while other leaders include Iraq’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi (Manchester), Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani (Glasgow Caledonian) and Benin’s prime minister Lionel Zinsou (LSE).

“We punch above our weight internationally partly because of the soft power benefits that arise from educating the world’s leaders. It is staggering that 55 world leaders should have studied in a country of the UK’s size, yet we benefit enormously from the fact that they did,” said Nick Hillman, HEPI’s director.

But Hillman, a former special adviser on higher education at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said tightened visa restrictions on overseas students would hurt the UK’s influence in the future.

“The Home Office wants to restrict the number of foreigners coming to study here while other parts of government recognise the economic benefits. It is a straight fight pitching security against economics. That’s a tragedy because all sorts of other advantages are being ignored,” Hillman said.

Manchester University topped the list having educated 10 world leaders as either undergraduates or postgraduates, Oxford nine, Sandhurst and London’s colleges seven apiece, Cambridge four, and LSE three, including Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos.

Politics-based courses such as international relations were, fittingly, the most popular among the future national leaders, followed by military training and law courses.

The list includes only two women, although the pair are poles apart. One is Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, who studied archaeology at Girton College in the 1960s, Cambridge, while the other is Atifete Jahjaga, the president of Kosovo who studied police management as a postgraduate at Leicester University in 2007.

A noteable absence from the list is Britain’s own head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, who did not attend university and received no formal education, being home-schooled.

The remnants of Europe’s aristocracy are also represented by two Sandhurst graduates, Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg and Crown Prince Alois of Liechtenstein. Sandhurst also educated Ian Khama, president of Botswana, as well as the Sultan of Brunei.

The total of 55 leaders does not include the three British-educated leaders of disputed states such as Palestine, or those such as Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who gained a business studies qualification through distance learning.

A few countries have both serving head of state and head of government as British university alumni, including Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi (Manchester), and the prime minister, Carlos Agostinho do Rosário (Imperial College London).

The list suggests soft power has its limitations in foreign policy. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad studied ophthalmology at a teaching hospital now part of Imperial College healthcare trust in London.

The UK recruits more overseas students than any country other than the US, and they comprise a sixth of the total UK student body. But in recent years the UK’s growth in numbers has fallen behind many of its international rivals.

The number of overseas students coming to the UK grew by 2% in 2013-14, while Germany’s higher education sector grew nearly 7% in the same period.

Of most concern is the sharp fall in the number of students from India, which halved from 39,000 in 2010-11 to 19,000 in 2013-14.

Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of St Andrews University, who takes over at Oxford next year, told the Times Higher Education Supplement that Britain would be “impoverished if students from other countries find it too costly, too difficult or too unwelcoming to travel to the UK to attend our universities”.

Richardson said the UK should do more to keep talented overseas students. “Rather than insisting that foreigners educated here leave on graduation, we should be providing incentives for them to stay and to commit their education and energy to the British economy.”

Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group of leading research universities, said: “If we are to maintain our place as a global leader in higher education, the UK must show that its doors are open to the very best and brightest academics and students from anywhere in the world.”

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