Last October, the Home Office suggested halving the number of international students to the UK. The backlash was immediate from varied fronts – universities, students, the public. And for good reason: foreign students bring in nearly £5 billion annually in tuition and fees and uphold the UK’s reputation as the multicultural destination of choice for students.
They arrive with skills and culture – a potent combination for any university or nation to lead in a globalised world.
And over the course of history, we have seen many of them graduate. They weren’t just another statistic whose sole purpose is to drive house prices up or take jobs away.
They were leaders, award-winning architects, revolutionaries, Nobel Peace Prize winners. As eloquently put by a Guardian reader, “International students not only support our universities, they also contribute to our soft power: one in seven countries has a leader who studied in the UK.”
Beyond their places of birth, it was their accomplishments and contributions that reserved them a place in history – the UK’s and the world. Here’s a look at some of Britain’s most notable alumni:
1. Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan)
University of Oxford
She was the ambitious and charismatic “Daughter of Pakistan”. The New York Times called her “a woman of grand aspirations with a taste for complex political maneuverings”. Born to the political dynasty of General Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she had earned her first B.A. in Comparative Government at Harvard University.
She then got her second B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. There, she was the President of the Oxford Union, the famous English debating society, an experience which was no doubt helpful when speaking in front of thousands of Pakistanis. Slightly more than a decade later, she ran for election as Prime Minister of Pakistan and won, becoming the first woman to be democratically elected to head a Muslim state.
2. Desmond Tutu (South Africa)
King’s College, London
In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa”. From then on, he has continued his work as the “voice for the voiceless” in the fight against HIV/AIDS, poverty, racism, sexism etc.
Before this impressive list of accomplishments, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu was an undergraduate and postgraduate student in King’s College, London. On his time at King’s, Tutu said, “Study opened up a whole new world to me. I was excited by the accessibility of books, the freedom to question and to debate and the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of minds whose experience and learning left me eager to discover more.”
3. Dame Zaha Hadid (Iraq)
Architectural Association School of Architecture
First woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Twice winner of the UK’s prestigious Stirling Prize. First woman awarded the Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects. The recipient of this massive list of awards is Dame Zaha Hadid.
She was born in Baghdad, Iraq, but was forced to flee after the rise of dictator Saddam Hussein. But its beauty stayed and inspired her visionary buildings which span from Britain to Abu Dhabi, “My father [a leading liberal Iraqi politician] took us to see the Sumerian cities. Then we went by boat, and then on a smaller one made of reeds, to visit villages in the marshes. The beauty of the landscape – where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings and people all somehow flowed together – has never left me. I’m trying to discover – invent, I suppose – an architecture, and forms of urban planning, that do something of the same thing in a contemporary way. I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form a new kind of landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of their peoples.”
4. Mahatma Gandhi (India)
Inner Temple, London
In the beginning of 1888, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was just another Indian law student at Inner Temple, London. Some 60 years later, he had become a global icon of the non-violence resistance movements.
After his return from London, Mahatma Gandhi had initiated several non-violent campaigns against the British imperialists in India, including the 24-day Salt March. This Salt March not only showed how the British rule in India had lost the consent of Indians for them to rule India. It empowered the village masses of India to rise against unjust oppression. Around 30 years later, the Salt March in turn inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for the civil rights of African-Americans.
5. Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore)
University of Cambridge
It is hard to speak of Singapore and how it is one of the most economically successful countries in the world without speaking of Lee Kuan Yew. Authoritarian policies aside, he was the architect that transformed Singapore from a “third world country to a first world country in a single generation”.
For a man who extols ‘Asian values’ as the secret to Singapore’s success, his education was as English as can be. Born and educated in colonial Singapore, Lee then enrolled in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University to read law. He graduated First Class with a perfect score for Part II Law, the top of his cohort. Until his death in 2015, he remained a relentless nation builder for Singapore.
Images via AP Images