Immigration is a positive, not a negative

The academy must repel UKIP’s charges, argues Christopher Phelps

June 6, 2013

Source: James Fryer

The local election results are indeed a clarion call. Societies that pursue intolerant paths are invariably remembered via cautionary tales

Ours is a moment of déjà vu, as hard times produce scapegoats. Strawberry-pickers and care-home workers from Poland, Bulgarians and Romanians on the horizon, and the ever-stigmatised Muslim: these are the new objects of resentment, displacing the bankers whose speculations brought on mass unemployment.

Gains for Nigel Farage’s far-right UK Independence Party in last month’s local elections have led David Cameron’s government to seek, via the Queen’s Speech, a further reinforcement of borders. Universities are rightly concerned, for this threatens the sector’s ability to compete on a global scale for staff and students of the highest possible calibre.

Since migration from Eastern Europe is a matter of European Union policy, it is largely beyond the government’s capacity to control it. Others bear the brunt of the restrictions, therefore. In the past year, the number of overseas students - a category comprised entirely of non-EU nationals, from the US to India - dropped from 246,000 to 190,000. Foreign-language colleges have been worst affected but universities have also been hit.

This is not “progress”. It is regress. As Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, indicated in comments made at a conference on 29 May, properly understood, international enrolment is an export. Qualified youth the world over are pleased to pay premium fees to study in the UK. Their living expenditures prime the economy.

The statements by Johnson and business secretary Vince Cable at the Global University Summit were auspicious but even stronger opposition to the drift of policy and political culture is needed. UKIP and the English Defence League, with pints in hand, are merely the extremities of a consensus that extends to all three major parties, none of which dares to defend immigration forthrightly, making for a disastrous policy course.

Consider the government’s new proposal to deny free NHS coverage to all temporary migrants (those resident here less than five years, even if on permanent work contracts). This will deter many prospective international lecturers, postgraduates and undergraduates from coming here. Looked at from a medical viewpoint, the proposal is witless: in some future epidemic, do we want any part of the population to be unable to seek care?

Recognition that immigrants make positive - indeed essential - contributions to British society and that opposition to immigration tout court is dangerously self-defeating will only come from within civil society. That is why we need a more coordinated, assertive, visible effort from the academy than the quiet lobbying efforts seen to date from Universities UK and the Russell Group. Press conferences of vice- chancellors, immigration experts working with churches and community organisations, and relevant initiatives by the British Academy would all be a good way to start.

The findings of academic research provide many potential talking points. One is that immigration improves fiscal balance sheets. Immigrant workers pay taxes but are more youthful than the population as a whole and so make less use of the NHS than average Britons. Few draw public benefits. International students are a boon to the British economy, contributing an estimated £8 billion a year, although the government’s self-beggaring actions are causing that number to decline.

Another is that national labour markets are not zero-sum. Immigrants typically arrive at the lowest and highest reaches of employment, expanding the economy and leading to jobs for others through spending and labour at the lower reaches, skills and innovation at the higher, and consumption by all.

And research has also shown that working-class immigrants face language difficulties and unfamiliarity with the law that leave them vulnerable to exploitation. The way to stop immigration from driving down wages is to impose tough fines on abusive employers who violate minimum-wage or labour standards.

The government needs to recognise that global symbolism is consequential. The UK Border Agency (now in its death throes) is an off-putting, inept bureaucracy that grinds migrants through a wringer of complexity and delay. As word spreads of the less tolerant quality of British culture and policies, what cost will be paid in international goodwill?

The local election results are indeed a clarion call - just not the one that politicians are hearing. Societies that pursue intolerant paths are invariably recorded in literature and history via cautionary tales. As any historian could tell you, Britain’s peopling was overlaid with Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, and by improbable accommodations struck between English, Welsh, Irish and Scots. As the nation attained a reputation as a sanctuary of liberty, it attracted political refugees as diverse as Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek, and drew international students such as Mohandas Gandhi, Jomo Kenyatta and Bill Clinton.

Scholars have the wherewithal to help the UK resist its meanest tongues, but informed voices must redouble their efforts or be bested by demagogues in the contest for public opinion.

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