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

@sarahmulley

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

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories