How the immigration cap is strangling our universities

The restrictions on foreign students are costing the UK £3bn a year.

When even the Daily Telegraph says that the government's immigration policy is too restrictive, you know that something's gone badly wrong. The cause of the Telegraph's ire is the coalition's disastrous decision to include students in the immigration cap, a policy that is costing us £2bn-£3bn a year. It notes: "[E]ven with the new curbs, ministers can probably only meet the migration target by depriving universities of thousands of genuine students, many of whom would go on to make a glittering contribution to this country."

The latest immigration figures showed that the number of visas issued to international students fell by 21% in the year to June 2012. Normally the news that one of our biggest export industries has declined by a fifth in a year would be cause for alarm, but ministers hailed it as proof that they were making progress towards their goal of dramatically reducing net migration. Immigration minister Damian Green said he was hopeful that "the fall we've now started seeing in these figures up to the end of last year will continue in the months and years ahead." In other words, the government is hoping that the university sector will decline at the fastest rate possible.

Such masochistic policy is, of course, the inevitable result of Cameron's populist (and unachievable) pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year, a level not seen since the days of the Major government. With the government unable to restrict EU immigration (unless it leaves the club altogether), its only option is to squeeze non-EU migration as hard as it can and that means closing the door to thousands of would-be students. In today's FT, Richard Lambert, the Chancellor of Warwick University and the former head of the CBI, writes of how "The UK Border Agency is putting intense pressure on several institutions, including well-run ones, where vice-chancellors claim they are having to account for their international students’ whereabouts almost in real time."

There's still little chance of Cameron meeting his target, but at least he'll be able to boast that the numbers are "moving in the right direction" (even as our shrinking economy is further enfeebled). Yet since most student migration is short-term (they study, then leave), reduced immigration now means reduced emigration later, so the impact on net migration is negligible. Is the government really strangling one of our most successful sectors so that it can temporarily claim that immigration is coming down? The answer is yes.

David Cameron talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.