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 sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

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 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage