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THE government has decided that Rolls-Royce is selling too many jet engines to foreigners. From now on, there will be a strict quota on the number it may sell. OK, I made that up. And you weren’t fooled for a moment, were you? After all, no government would be so foolish as to throttle a great British export industry.

Or would it? Education is one of our most lucrative exports. After America, we have the most prestigious academic brands in the world. Foreigners are queuing up to pay handsomely to attend Oxford, Cambridge and a host of other fine institutions.

Yet the government wants to impose a tight cap on immigration from outside the EU that will fall heavily on foreign students. This is every bit as short-sighted as that imaginary cap on jet-engine exports.

Actually, it is worse. For foreign students do much more than subsidise the fees of British ones. They also improve the educational experience for locals, by exposing them to fresh ideas from far-flung parts. And, more importantly, they build ties between Britain and the rest of the world that can last for generations.

Such ties matter. Foreigners who have lived in Britain are much more likely to do business with British firms. For example, Tata, an Indian conglomerate, is investing in steel plants in Yorkshire, car plants in Merseyside and information-technology jobs in Peterborough. In fact, it is Britain’s largest industrial employer, having bought and revived Jaguar LandRover and Corus (formerly British Steel).

It invests in Britain not only because British laws are investor-friendly, but also because so many Tata executives have personal ties to our country. Tata’s new boss, Cyrus Mistry, was educated at Imperial College, London.

Clever foreigners who have studied or worked here often move back and forth between Britain and their home countries, spreading ideas as they move. Consider Devi Shetty, an Indian doctor who trained at Guy’s Hospital in London. There, he learned the latest techniques in heart surgery. Then he moved back to India, where he combined what he learned in Britain with mass-production techniques of the sort you might find in a car factory.

At his hospital in Bangalore, patients are whizzed through operating theatres. Surgeons perform operation after operation, steadily becoming faster and more skilled. Dr Shetty offers the cheapest heart surgery in the world: less than £1,300 for a bypass. This is barely a tenth of the cost in the West, yet the survival rates at Dr Shetty’s hospital are equally good.

As Britain ages and the NHS buckles under the weight of rising medical costs, could we use a few tips on how to cure people more cheaply? I think so, and so does Dr Shetty. He visits Britain regularly to share ideas with people he knows who would like to adapt Indian frugal medicine to British circumstances.

If Britain wants to compete in a connected world, we need to keep forging links with foreigners. If we shut out people, we shut out ideas. A Conservative government ought to realise this.

Robert Guest is the Business Editor of the Economist. His book ‘Borderless Economics, Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism’, is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is available now. 

Listen to Bright Blue blog editor Jonathan Algar in conversation with Robert and Prof. Ian Goldin (Director, Oxford Martin School) at the Royal Institute of International Affairs:


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