Stubbornly indifferent

The government’s immigration policy harms student traffic from abroad and the economy, claims Shabana Mahmood

January 31, 2013

The government’s immigration policy is doing real and significant damage to both UK higher education and our economy.

Campaigners are trying to persuade the government to remove international students from the net migration statistics. This is understandable, but we must also remember that the damage is not the result of a statistical quirk but of deliberate acts of government policy.

The problem is the prime minister’s pledge - his “no ifs, no buts” policy to get net migration down to the tens of thousands by 2015 - a pledge that he is unlikely to be able to fulfil. That is because two significant components of net migration are people coming to this country from the European Union and the number of British citizens who leave, neither of which the government can do anything about.

Unbelievably, the pledge makes it a sign of success if more Brits move abroad, and the recent drop in net migration was achieved mostly by fewer Brits returning home, more leaving and fewer foreign students entering.

Moreover, neither of the government’s other major reforms to control non- EU migration - a cap on economic migrants and higher salary thresholds for spouses - will have enough impact on net migration levels to meet his target because the numbers here are relatively small.

The reality is that to get net migration down, the government must significantly reduce the number of students coming to study in this country - simply because they are easiest to control.

It is important to remember, too, that the government’s pledge on net migration was made in full knowledge of this. You do not need a detailed knowledge of immigration statistics to work out what the impact of an immigration policy based solely on reducing net migration numbers will be.

Tightening the system against abuse is important and is something that we support, but this government is now threatening the flow of entirely legitimate international students, and they and our universities are taking a significant hit - one that we can ill-afford.

If Labour were in power today, the focus of our approach to controlling immigration would certainly not be big cuts in the number of legitimate foreign university students, who bring in huge resources and leave after a few years when their course is finished.

Britain has a long and proud history of being the destination of choice for students from around the globe. There are some very good reasons for this, not least the fact that our universities are some of the best in the world and that the UK provides a rich, diverse and safe environment in which to study.

And if we are to get our economy growing again, higher education has a significant role to play. International students are vital to the economy: they ensure higher education’s place as the UK’s seventh largest export industry, billions of pounds on which we depend.

But I would go further and say that higher education should be front and centre of an active government strategy to generate growth, and not just because of its tremendous value as an export industry. If we are going to keep up with our competitor countries, we need more talented students from China or Brazil learning at our top universities. This not only brings in substantial investment in the short term, it also helps the UK build important cultural and economic links with the future leaders of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

And we benefit from the cultural exchange, too - UK students are exposed to new cultures and ideas, which enrich their educational experience.

The government’s simplistic approach endangers all of this.

David Cameron’s pledge will drive down the number of foreign students while the government fails to tackle illegal immigration and fails to deal with concerns about the impact of immigration in our communities.

Either the prime minister values our universities, and believes that international students are important to them and to our economy, or he is happy to do ruinous damage to the higher education sector for short-term political ends and, in so doing, to further stifle economic growth. Government is about choice - and so far, in this critical area, the prime minister’s choices have been clearly and unambiguously wrong.

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