Why Cameron shouldn't celebrate the fall in net migration

Reducing net migration by cutting foreign student numbers is an act of economic masochism.

David Cameron was quick to celebrate the news that net migration to the UK has fallen by nearly a quarter over the last year, declaring that "effective immigration helps us compete in the global race". The fall in net migration (the difference between the number of people leaving the country and the number entering), from 242,000 to 183,000, is the largest for four years and means Cameron is significantly closer to his goal of reducing the number of net arrivals to "the tens of thousands" by the end of the Parliament.

But what Cameron didn't and won't say is that the fall in net migration was principally due to a decline of 19,000 in the number of foreign students, with 26 per cent fewer visas issued. Relying on reduced student numbers in order to curb net migration is, as I've written before, an act of economic masochism. Estimates suggest that an annual fall of 20,000 in the number of foreign students, who account for more than a tenth of higher education income in England, will cost the economy around £1bn-£1.5bn. With the government unable to restrict EU immigration (unless it leaves the club altogether), its only option is to squeeze non-EU migration as hard as it can and that means closing the door to thousands of would-be students.

There's still little chance of Cameron meeting his target, but at least he'll be able to boast that the numbers are "moving in the right direction" (even as our anaemic economy is further enfeebled). Yet since most student migration is short-term (they study, then leave), reduced immigration now means reduced emigration later, so the impact on net migration is negligible. Is the government really strangling one of our most successful sectors so that it can temporarily claim that immigration is coming down? The answer is yes.

David Cameron watches passengers go through immigration control during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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