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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.