Immigration, immigration, immigration. Tony Blair isn’t turning in his political grave so much as rising from it, so unsettled is he by the resurrection of his triplicate pledge from 1997 (with “border control” replacing “education”).
If the polls prove correct, Theresa May will come into office on 9 June claiming a powerful personal mandate as a prime minister who has carried the sensibilities of a hard-line home secretary into No 10. And for the pro-Brexit brigade, driving down net migration is priority number one.
The argument that immigration is not, in fact, the problem gets increasingly short shrift in public debate. Emboldened right-wingers queue up to dismiss such arguments as the self-pitying cry of a liberal metropolitan elite, who think any curb on immigration is racist and xenophobic.
Those on the other side see the effects of economic policies that have left too many people behind being blamed on immigrants (and argue that ’twas ever thus).
They point to studies that suggest that immigrants are net fiscal contributors to the UK economy – particularly those who are young, highly skilled and with limited impact on the welfare state.
All of which backs up the argument that international students should be welcomed whether you call them immigrants or not. And all of which seems to make little or no difference to May.
In our news pages, we ask how the prime minister’s renewed commitment to a migration target might affect universities, both in terms of student “immigration” and academic emigration.
Many university leaders are, privately at least, even more worried about the latter than the former, pointing to both push and pull factors at play.
The push, anecdotally, is as much about atmosphere and the sense of welcome and belonging as it is about such technical details as continued access to European funding.
In terms of the pull, there’s no doubt that the world-leading researchers in UK universities are targets for other countries.
In a video address dating from February, Emmanuel Macron, the freshly minted president of France, makes a direct appeal to academics working in key scientific fields who no longer see their future in a Trump-run US. Come to France, he implores; we want you. It’s safe to assume that the invitation also stands for research talent in the UK, and Macron is not alone in his desire to poach academic talent from the world’s two leading systems.
Phone calls are being made, and phone calls are being taken – some researchers have already left, but many more surely will if the UK continues on its current trajectory.
The Brexit brain drain won’t happen overnight, but who can look five years ahead and say with any confidence that the UK’s research base will not be diminished?
Of course, immigration and emigration aren’t the only issues for UK higher education in this election.
Elsewhere in this week’s issue, we analyse the data to identify the constituencies and individual universities where the student vote has the potential to be most influential on 8 June.
But the biggest development this week has been Labour’s manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees.
Putting aside any arguments about costs and costings, the very fact that this is back on the menu for voters could be a pivotal moment for the future of higher education in the country.
If Labour is defeated heavily, as many predict, what does that say about free higher education as an issue? Does it put to bed once and for all something that most people would like in principle, but that may never be a spending priority for the electorate in practice?
This election is undoubtedly an unusual one, and dominated by Brexit, but there are also two quite distinct futures for higher education on offer. And it could be the last time that free higher education is put centre stage in Westminster. If Labour loses big, don’t expect to hear the mantra “higher education, higher education, higher education” in the campaign of 2022.