Targeting foreign students is a mistake

In a cynical bid to curb immigration, the government has tightened the screws on the higher educatio

Not so long ago, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, echoed Gordon Brown's nadir in calling for British jobs for British workers. "In the short term, controlling immigration is critical," he said, "or we will risk losing another generation to dependency and hopelessness."

Like Brown, Duncan Smith failed to offer a realistic solution to the perceived bias of the labour market towards those from abroad. He complained that more than half of new jobs in the preceding year had been taken by foreigners (a statistic dismissed as "dodgy" by Matt Cavanagh of the Institute for Public Policy Research, who put the figure at closer to 10 or 20 per cent). In response, business leaders, rather sensibly, urged the coalition government to focus on reforming skills and education.

The most recent Tory assault on UK colleges, however, probably isn't what they had in mind. The Conservatives are committed to slashing net migration from 239,000 per year to below 100,000 (by next election season, naturally) -- but since a large proportion of immigrants to the UK come from within the European Union and are not subject to British control, ministers have little wriggle room.

Of non-EU immigrants, many are here to work; yet this group, so necessary to UK business interests, has largely been protected. That leaves foreigners arriving to join their families -- an entry route safeguarded by international and human rights laws -- and students. The Tories have predictably leapt upon this last group, even though they contribute in excess of £5bn to the UK economy each year through tuition fees and off-campus expenditure.

When the government unveiled its new student visa rules in March, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, raised concerns that they risked "sending out the worrying message that the UK is closed for business". If the UK as a whole has managed to remain open (well, barely), the same cannot be said for the 51 colleges that have failed UK Border Agency inspections and the more than 470 education providers that have been barred from accepting new foreign students in the past six months alone, according to new figures from the Home Office.

The Immigration Minister, Damian Green, is correct to come down hard on the "widespread abuse of the student visa system" and many of the colleges that were closed were doubtless shut for good reason. As the Financial Times reports: "When asked by inspectors, one of these providers could not even produce a list of students enrolled or a timetable of classes, while others could not produce records of student attendance."

Yet Green's jubilance that the measures are "beginning to bite" is misplaced.

The above successes aside, the Tory programme of targeting prospective students from outside the EU has been poorly conducted and ill-considered. Despite the symbolic value it will have to some, it will fail to make "a significant dent" in the immigration reduction target, according to Scott Blinder, senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

Instead, as a result of new government rules, a higher education sector that is heavily reliant on international students (and which has already experienced a fall of 9 per cent in UK applicants, likely due to the massively increased fees) is deterring bright, young people from around the world from choosing Britain. The UK Universities group, a student placement service, reports a sharp downturn in applications from abroad; many are instead opting for countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

A Migration Observatory poll found that 57 per cent of Britons were happy with the number of foreign university students rising or staying the same. The figures in relation to English language or further education students were also positive. So does it make sense to target them? Visa abuse within the sector is very low. It's just odd to overstate the case. In a recent FT report, Cavanagh says: "The public are negative about immigration but they don't mind foreign students or skilled workers. Yet those are the two categories that the government is ending up bearing down on the hardest because they're the easiest to control."

It's time that the government prioritised the national good over easy headlines. Perhaps Nicola Dandridge of Universities UK was on to something when she suggested:

The numbers of international students coming into the country should be accounted for separately and not included in the definition of net migrants for the purposes of government policy. International students are not economic migrants. They come to the UK to study, and then they leave. The vast majority of international students return home once their studies are completed, and those that do not, need to re-apply for a separate visa.

Sounds like common sense to me. The US and Australia both attempted to curb the numbers of overseas students but reversed the policy, after it damaged the international competitiveness of their institutions. We should learn from their mistake.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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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.