Why ministers shouldn't celebrate today's migration figures

With a dramatic fall in the number of international students, the government’s policy 'success' has come at a considerable economic cost.

Today’s migration statistics - which showed a sharp fall in net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) from 242,000 in the year ending September 2011 to 153,000 in the year ending September 2012 - are, on the face of it, a rare piece of good news for the government. The public want to see less immigration, and these numbers suggest that ministers are making progress towards their commitment to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 by 2015.

However, there is a catch. The decline in immigration has been driven in large part by falling numbers of international students. This highlights three major problems with the government’s strategy, which have real implications for whichever party is in power after 2015.

The first problem is that the government’s 'success' has come at a considerable economic cost to the UK, at a time when the economy needs all the help it can get. Education is one of the UK’s most successful export sectors, and international students contribute an estimated £8bn to the UK economy every year. The government will argue that student numbers are falling because new rules are reducing abuse of the student visa regime. Tougher rules are, no doubt, reducing abuse, but there is no evidence that the scale of abuse at the time the new rules came into place was high enough to explain the subsequent drop in numbers – it is certain that a large number of genuine students are being kept out.

The government will also argue that the ‘brightest and the best’ are still coming to the UK, pointing to figures that show a 5 per cent increase in the number of visas issued via universities (compared to a 46 per cent decline in the numbers issued via FE and English language colleges). But the universities are still, rightly, very concerned. A previous trend of rapid growth has been stopped in its tracks, and a substantial number of their international students come via the UK FE sector – the full impacts of the new rules on universities have yet to be seen.

The second problem is that the impact of falling student numbers on net migration is likely to be short-lived. Since most students stay in the UK only for a short time, reduced student immigration now will mean reduced emigration in the future, which by 2015 could partially reverse the falls in net migration we are seeing now. The Home Office’s own research suggests that only 18 per cent of student migrants are still in the UK after five years. That means that the 56,000 fall in student immigration in the year to September 2012 will only reduce net migration by just over 10,000 in the medium term.

The final problem is that the overwhelming focus on the net migration target risks missing the point with the public. While the government clamps down on groups that the public are least worried about, including international students, in order to meet its target, it is failing to confront many of the issues that cause real concerns.

Migration is a complex issue, which raises genuine trade offs in both policy and political terms. The public, rightly, want to see open and honest discussion about migration from all sides of the political spectrum, but the ritual debate about net migration does not help us to achieve it.

The net migration target may appear to be good politics for the government, but it also lays a number of traps for the future – Labour must continue to resist pressure to adopt the target, and the Conservatives would do well to consider whether or not it makes sense for them to retain it going into the next election.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR


David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at in Ipswich, eastern England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.