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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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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