Tariq ur Rehman at Islamabad airport, June 11, 2009. One of the Pakistani students rounded up by British authorities on allegations of terrorism that were later dropped described his detention as "mental torture" upon returning to his native country.
"Foreign Students are an Opportunity, Not a Threat"
June 18, 2009
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
This op-ed also appeared in the Pakistan Times as "Of the Foreign Students in the UK" on June 19, 2009.
To reduce terrorism in the long term, Britain must increase the number of students from Pakistan
While the British media was distracted by MPs' expense accounts last week, an important story about Britain's border controls went virtually ignored.
Bogus educational colleges have let hundreds of 'students' into the UK, often from areas in Pakistan which is home to Islamic militancy. But it was not a tabloid newspaper who called this "the biggest loophole in Britain's border controls". That damning description came directly from the man in charge of the system — immigration minister Phil Woolas.
He has now agreed to toughen the system, and not a moment too soon. All students who we let into the UK should be carefully scrutinised. Questionable, or fictional, institutions should be investigated and blacklisted. Students should lose their right to a student VISA if they do not turn up to any classes, the better to find out who is really here to study.
But we should resist the temptation to react to the fear of terrorism by turning inwards, reducing ties to foreign countries, and denying more students entry. Reducing the number of foreign student Visas would be counterproductive. The US tried it after September 11th, but has now reversed its approach, realising the harm it is doing. To do the same would be to be cowed into becoming a more closed society. We must remain open, outward-looking and vibrant. It is precisely many of these foreign students who will help their countries to reduce terrorism over the long run.
Firstly, studying here often gives students from younger democracies a better view of the UK in particular, and life under an established liberal democracy in general. Sadiq Khan, the Labour MP for Tooting, has argued that opinion in Pakistan of the UK is overwhelmingly negative in some parts, based on the misperception that the UK is involved with US drone strikes in Pakistan, which kill civilians.
The comment highlights how hard it is to control foreign perceptions of the UK. By studying here, foreign students can judge for themselves. Many will receive a positive impression of such values as a pluralistic press and the separation of powers, and return to set up vital civil society institutions at home.
Secondly, studying in the UK can improve governance abroad. By educating the next generation of engineers, civil servants, journalists and others in the UK, we are helping other countries, such as Pakistan, to be run by individuals with world class skills in future generations.
Take, for example, Sandhurst Academy. It has a substantial number of foreign officer cadets in the commissioning course. Part of the reason is that many of these students (such as members of the Royal families in the Gulf States) are the elite who will go back to positions of great influence in their countries. They are likely to look back at their time at Sandhurst as positive step in their development.
Thirdly, it improves international links. When I was at Sandhurst for the Territorial Army Commissioning Course, a senior officer told me that many of the current Iraqi officer corps were Sandhurst graduates. In 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, their former UK officer cadets were able to call them in Iraq, explain the situation, and tell them to switch sides. Connections like this can only be formed early on, and university is an ideal time and place.
We risk making policy based on the minority of applicants who want to play the system. Instead we should be making policy based on the majority of foreign students who want to study hard and fulfil their aspirations.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; world fellow at Yale University and a director at the European Centre for Advanced Defence and Strategic Studies.
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