The latest migration statistics have been met with the usual barrage of claim and counter-claim. The government is claiming the fall in net migration as a sign of success in its efforts to get net migration down to less than 100,000 a year. On the other side, the education sector (particularly further education and English language colleges) will see the 26 per cent decline in foreign student visas as a disaster for the economy. Meanwhile, the latest report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration highlights failures to enforce student visa rules properly.
It is clear that it's premature of the government to declare victory on the net migration target – there’s a long way to go yet. Yesterday's figures showed net migration in the year to March 2012 of 183,000, against the government’s target of less than 100,000. Although ministers have tightened up immigration rules across the board, the main effects on migration numbers have come from changes to the student visa regime. The net migration figures published yesterday only cover the period up to March 2012 – more up-to-date student visa data suggest that further falls in the net migration figures are likely in the coming months. But the impact of declining foreign student numbers on net migration is likely to be short-lived. Because most students only stay in the UK for a short time, reduced immigration today means reduced emigration in two or three years’ time, which could see net migration rise again. That would further undermine public confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on immigration.
It is also clear that cuts to student numbers come at a significant economic cost to the UK. Although government rhetoric around student visas is usually focused on abuse of the system, it is clear that the falls in foreign student numbers required for the government to meet its net migration target would mean drastic cuts to the numbers of genuine foreign students. Indeed, it is hard to argue that today’s statistics show anything other than a reduction in the number of genuine students coming to the UK. All this is costing the economy billions (as the government’s own impact assessment acknowledged) at a time when we can ill-afford to reduce export earnings (which is what foreign student fees and spending are), and is leading to more jobs being lost in the UK.
And none of this will help assuage public concerns about immigration if UKBA cannot carry out the basic functions of enforcement. It is meaningless to talk about making the rules tougher if you can’t enforce the ones you already have. It may even be that the government’s single-minded focus on reducing net migration creates new enforcement problems in the future. For example, "student visitors" who come to the UK for less than 12 months do not count as migrants for the purposes of net migration figures, and are subject to less rigorous checks than those coming through the main student visa route. The number of student visitor visas issued is continuing to rise, perhaps because tough action on student visas aimed at meeting the net migration target has led to a displacement effect. The government needs to be sure that it has the systems in place to deal with this.
All this confirms that the net migration target is leading to bad policy. It may also be bad politics. The government need to be brave enough to change their approach, or at least exclude students from the net migration target. Labour need to admit past mistakes, but avoid getting into a "bidding war" on migration numbers, as Ed Balls acknowledged yesterday. Politicians from all sides need to be prepared to have an honest discussion with the public about the difficult trade-offs that migration policy presents to policy makers. Sadly, the ritual debate about net migration does not move us further towards that goal.
Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.