Cameron sells Britain to the Indians

The PM softens his stance on immigration to encourage more skilled migrants from the subcontinent.

David Cameron travels on the Dehli Metro during his last visit, in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

David Cameron has used a trip to India to promote British universities to potential applicants, assuring workers at Hindustan Unilever that there is "no limit" on the number of Indian students who can come to Britain. The promise is, however, conditional on a basic English qualification and the offer of a place.

The announcement is merely a restatement of existing policy, but underscores the difficulty the government is having reconciling two opposing aims.

On the one hand, it is trying to reduce immigration to the UK. Problematically, the target it has set itself — reducing net migration to below 100,000 people per year — is one it can't really affect directly. Around a third of net migration to the UK is made up of EU citizens, whose freedom of movement cannot legally be impaired. The most recent statistics available show a net inward migration of 76,000 EU citizens, against a total net migration of 166,000 people.

Similarly, one of the biggest downward pressures in net migration to the UK is emigration of British citizens. 151,000 British citizens left the UK in the year ending March 2012, and just 73,000 arrived in the same year. For opponents of migration who genuinely believe Britain is "full", encouraging British emigration may be a sensible proposal to reduce net migration; but for those with more nebulous concerns about "culture clashes", it's the last thing they would want.

Those intractable sources of migration increase the pressure for the government to use the only policy levers it does have: those affecting migration from non-EU countries. That is why, for instance, the Home Office launched an actual war on marriage on Valentine's day, arresting people in the registry office for "sham" marriages:

 

 

(Presumably those who thought same sex marriage was an assault on the institution will be speaking up about this literal assault shortly)

Similar pressure has been brought to bear on businesses wanting to hand out visas for work, and on students wanting to come to Britain to study. Even the American director of economics at Oxford University's Smith School finds himself at the behest of a British regime which is less than welcoming, prompting a letter to the Financial Times calling on David Cameron to "make good on the recent promise you made at Davos that 'Britain is back open for business'."

The problem is that, even as these last few avenues by which the government can control the rate of migration are squeezed as tightly as they can be, the economic situation is also making it painfully clear that they should be as wide-open as possible.

The only economic argument against immigration which holds any water is that low-skilled migration may depress the wages of the worst off in Britain, even as it boosts output overall. Such an argument leaves open the question of why the proper response to that isn't redistribution rather than restriction (as well as the more philosophical question of why it's valid to value some people's quality of life over others' based just on where they happened to be born), but even taken at face value, it says nothing about the virtues of restricting "high skilled" immigration.

And so, faced with a rather urgent need to boost the productive capacity of Britain, Cameron has started emphasising that latter aim. No longer is he telling potential overseas students "don't come here, it's cold and wet and you probably won't get any face-to-face teaching anyway"; instead, the UK as a source of high-quality learning and potential business investment gets touted on an overseas trip.

(There is also, of course, the fact that an influx of overseas students will do much to tide over the funding crisis in UK universities, as those students are some of the few who pay more than their education costs).

So don't be fooled into thinking that a mere "restatement" of policy is no new news. If it really does indicate the Government shifting its priorities from ensuring that "Britain is closed" to finally using immigration policy to boost the economy, it could be the biggest story of the week.