At the close of the UKCISA Conference in June 2016, Abdi-Aziz Suleiman, former president of the University of Sheffield Students' Union re-launched the #weareinternational campaign and spoke passionately about the key role of staff working in the education sector to ensure that students coming to the UK have the best possible experience and that they feel welcome. What Abdi writes here reflects much of his speech at the conference - and provides a timely reminder of the difference we make to hundreds of thousands of new students arriving at our institutions at the start of the academic year.
When we first launched #weareinternational, it was driven by one extraordinarily simple insight. An insight that has been reasserted by the victory of leave in the EU referendum. That you might be able to marshal all the facts, stats and expert opinion for your case, but that those will pale in comparison to the power of a simple narrative that people instinctively see a truth in. We have seen from Brexit that fear can replace friendliness very quickly, but even after we leave this union of nations we will not have left the world. Today, tomorrow and each day after, our educational institutions will continue to play host to students from each and every corner of the earth. Brexit is not a reason to retreat from internationalism, it is a reason to be reminded of the best of it in every campus and community.
Yes, the economic argument for expanding and protecting international student numbers should be stunningly compelling to our government. Yes, the diffusion of International students across the country each year means that in many areas, far from the capital, which lack inward investment or fresh cultural vibrancy, both are replenished every year. Yes, the diplomatic contribution to Britain’s continued global relevance of educating future global leaders is probably substantive and irreplaceable but in the face of the simple language of ‘taking back control’ all of this too often melts into air.
We, therefore have to return to our own simple language and simple truths.
We live in a nation of 65 million people where over 300 languages are spoken, where 8.3% are born outside of our borders, where one in ten people have at least one living Irish grandparent, where Curry is the favourite dish, the numerical system is Arabic, tea has its own national status, where nearly everything from cars, t-shirts, toys, pasta and oranges are produced abroad. That’s before we mention that the nation itself is the intermingling of four other nations and cultures combined with the accumulated imprint of a history that has been to and seen and taken something from most of the rest of world. We live in a nation where our young people are more and more seeing their futures written in far way cities, seeing themselves as part of the solution to problems that decades ago they wouldn’t even have known about. Seeing their taste in music, clothing and hobbies intertwined with millions of others in other countries. More and more aware that the answers to the most difficult and important questions aren’t going to come from one country alone. In a phrase, aware that #weareinternational.
Yet there is a growing mood of isolationism, a growing sense that the edges of the Island have to be sharpened, protected and fences erected. You are all professionals dedicated to making your campuses and by extension this country a welcoming place. Your faith, enthusiasm and exposition of internationalist values, gives assurance to the unsure. It will be your greetings, your smiling faces and your shows of solidarity which will quell the angst and the unease of any visiting student who has had second thoughts about journeying to the UK following the Brexit vote.
Internationalism isn’t just about grand halls, great embassies and historic declarations of peace. It’s about two human beings born at different corners of a most random world. Two people, who find themselves in a class room in a third part of the world. Two people who find themselves with a friendship which fills a lifetime. We should be proud beyond proud that it is in our classrooms that they meet.
This idea is precious and powerful but it needs its protectors, its advocates, and its ambassadors. It needs people to take the time to say these words; I am international, you are international, that we are reliant on each other and cannot afford to fear each other.