Somewhere near the top of the new home secretary’s in tray – alongside sorting out the Windrush scandal – should be the transformation of our immigration policy into one that properly recognises the positive role of international students. Windrush offers a regrettable insight into the way bureaucracy often forgets that decisions made affect real people’s lives.
It is imperative that these British citizens have the certainty around their future that they deserve – and there are undoubtedly students who are caught up in the debacle who need reassurances, too.
Sajid Javid’s appointment is an opportunity for a fresh start and a more sensible and humane approach to immigration. Central to this approach should be an immigration policy that embraces the positive contribution that international students make to all facets of our country’s culture, society and economy – the latter to the tune of some £25 billion, according to a recent Universities UK study. These benefits are well understood in the sector and across most parts of government, not least by Javid following his tenure as business secretary. And the review by the Migration Advisory Committee commissioned by Amber Rudd is welcome and long overdue. Perhaps the new home secretary could ask that the committee publish its final report before the summer so that its findings can feed into the development of a new immigration bill.
Javid’s rejection of some of the toxic language around immigration is to be applauded. A so-called hostile environment sends an appalling signal to those international students we wish to attract and does nothing to entice those with the skills that the country needs to remain here. For too many years, universities have been pushed into being an extension of the Border Agency. Not only has this come with significant administrative costs, but it has undermined the rhetoric around welcoming the brightest and the best. It is time for a new approach.
The new home secretary’s shift in tone must be backed up with a change in policy. As a former business secretary, it is likely that he understands the importance of higher education as a global export, particularly as the UK faces shortages of people skilled in the STEM subjects that are so crucial to delivering the government’s industrial strategy. Removing students from the net migration figures would send a powerful message.
He will also need to turn his attention to developing a new immigration policy that supports economic growth in a post-Brexit landscape. As a Remainer, he will hopefully recognise the need to give certainty to European Union citizens studying here or working across the sector. EU-wide research collaboration and knowledge exchange can continue to be a key element of economic growth, but it needs the immigration framework to support it. One positive move would be for the current Tier 4 pilot to be extended across the sector to ease the visa application process for international students wishing to continue their studies or to work here.
Javid himself is an example of the power of higher education in this country, rising from working-class roots in the north west to earn a degree that set him on his career path through senior roles on different continents and, eventually, to one of the most influential positions in British politics. I hope that he will work to ensure that more young people can follow in his footsteps.
John Latham is the vice-chancellor of Coventry University.