I seem to recall that “education, education, education” was Tony Blair’s battle cry in the run-up to the 1996 general election. (With hindsight, the title of the Kaiser Chiefs’ latest album, Education, Education, Education and War, might have been closer to the mark.) But as the countdown to the 2015 general election begins, “immigration, immigration, immigration” has taken hold as the new mantra on all sides of the House.
It’s a situation that has all the makings of a farce. One of Shakespearean proportions. Last month, the Home Office, trying to look tough, saw fit to deport Mauritian teenager Yashika Bageerathi a few weeks before she was due to complete her A-level examinations. This led to the spectacle of a 19-year-old girl, separated from her immediate family, being marched on to a plane by a cluster of security guards. It was a classic illustration of how it is possible to be right to the very letter of the law but still get it all horribly wrong. In terms of public relations, it was like watching a football team carefully crafting a set piece and then triumphantly walloping the ball into the back of their own net. And the absurdity is unlikely to stop there.
The rhetoric of the government on immigration is inimical to that business model and the students that British universities are trying to attract
Politicians insist, inevitably, that their hard line on immigration isn’t racist in tone. Some point out that they happily employ legal immigrants – an effort, I guess, to prove to one and all that there is such a thing as the right sort of foreigner. None of it really washes. Their words, no matter how carefully constructed, sound like a 21st-century version of “some of my best friends are black”.
I understand that for many people with concerns about immigration, racism is not their core intent. But I have to confess that at times I’ve found it hard to distinguish what’s happening in British politics and society at the moment from the straightforward, old-fashioned racism of the past.
The winning strategy when you’re jumping on the immigration bandwagon – as all involved know – is to conjure up messages that are simple and frankly hostile. There is no room for nuance. These architects of the “dodgy foreigner” plan have succeeded in their goal of making the UK look like a thoroughly unwelcoming destination for the average immigrant. But that perception of hostility has extended well beyond the target audience, both within the UK and beyond its borders.
The number of international students studying in UK universities has fallen for the first time in 29 years. And the decline in both undergraduate and postgraduate numbers is particularly steep in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. According to Global Demand for English Higher Education, a report published last month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the number of international entrants to full-time postgraduate taught STEM courses dropped by about 20 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13. When ministers decided to turn the screw on immigration, they probably didn’t anticipate that it would be so injurious to the multibillion-pound industry that is higher education in the UK. And I’m guessing that they didn’t really intend to repel the much-needed inflow of overseas STEM students who could have played a vital role in underpinning the knowledge-based economy that successive governments have been so keen to build. But it happened anyway.
Until now, higher education has proved itself a highly successful export product and one that has benefited from a carefully established British brand. But the rhetoric of the government on immigration is inimical to that business model and the students that UK universities are trying to attract.
If this isn’t about simple racism – if educated foreigners who bring skills and money into the country are the acceptable face of immigration – then we need to do better. We need a visa system that strikes a balance between the lax student admissions policies of the past and the off-putting draconian measures of the present. And as others have said, we must stop counting international students in the net migration target. Until we do that, those who move between nations with an appetite for hard work and with skills under their belt will simply find other countries to enrich.
The political and public debate about immigration in this country is crude. It’s an easy thing to make people fear for their future and campaign on those terms. Easier still if you can find someone convenient to blame. It’s a tried and tested formula, but once the seeds of fear have been sown, they tend to grow, sometimes uncontrollably, as the mainstream political parties are now discovering.
So in recent weeks I’ve started to wonder if this has the makings not of a farce but of a tragedy. If some damage to the economy, the higher education sector and our strength in research end up being the only unintended consequences, we may well count ourselves lucky.