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.

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Commons Confidential: Gaffe-tastic Johnson, a missing Osborne, and a bit of May-hem

Plus rumours that Sir Keir “Call Me Mr” Starmer will throw his flat cap into the next Labour Party leadership contest.

Unlike Theresa May, the gaffe-tastic Boris Johnson is sackable. The blond bumbler did himself no favours by upsetting British Sikhs with his gurdwara “clinky” booze talk in a mock Indian accent, or foreshadowing the social care switch before his Downing Street line manager executed the humiliating manifesto manoeuvre.

May-hem’s position is assured as Prime Minister should the Tories win the election, but not so Johnson’s as Foreign Secretary. I hear that Johnson, too often the cause of chaos in the Conservative Party coalition, has made a dangerous enemy in Team May. Nick Timothy, May’s joint chief of staff, is said to be agitating for BoJo to be reshuffled ahead of the Brexit negotiations. Tick-tock.

Unless he has slipped into the building under cover of night, George Osborne hasn’t been seen at BlackRock’s London HQ since signing a £650,000 contract earlier this year, whispers my snout. Perhaps the former Tory chancellor is too busy, work on the London Evening Standard free sheet leaving an editor training on the job looking distinctly jaded. With BlackRock’s speculators nervous about divulging secrets to a budding journalist, the rapacious New York-based capitalist citadel would be forgiven if it wondered whether Boy George is value for money.

He is the son of a toolmaker and a nurse and is named after the Labour socialist Keir Hardie, and his energetic election campaign is fuelling speculation that Sir Keir “Call Me Mr” Starmer will throw his flat cap into the next party leadership contest. A Unite trade union fan of Starmer (yes, they exist) insisted that Camden doesn’t carry the negative Islington baggage of the incumbent. (Starmer represents Holborn and St Pancras, a leaflet’s throw from Corbyn’s constituency.) It may also help that Starmer has fallen out with Peter Mandelson, mastermind of the Blairite counter-revolution. The Prince of Darkness angrily judges the shadow Brexit secretary to be insufficiently Euroenthusiastic. If only the electorate felt the same.

Labour’s deputy and Unite old boy, Tom Watson, has joined the GMB trade union. Sounds like a smart insurance policy when he’s fallen out badly with Len McCluskey. Everybody needs employment protection.

No gushing One Show party political broadcasts for Labour. Jeremy Corbyn and his wife, Laura Alvarez, are declining to follow Theresa and Philip May in discussing boy and girl jobs on BBC1. Corbyn is fiercely protective of his family’s privacy. The other reason, I’m told, is a fear that the Mexican Alvarez’s slight Spanish lilt might reinforce suspicions among some of Labour’s more old-school supporters that he’s a member of the London metropolitan elite.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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