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.

Getty Images.
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Our new relationship with the EU may be a lot like the old one

For all the tough mood music, Theresa May has left room for concessions.

I'm sad and dismayed, but that's democracy for you.

The Mail is in a cheerier mood. "Freedom!" is their splash. "Dear EU, We're Leaving You" cheers the Express' while "Dear EU, it's time to go" is the Mirror's splash. "Dover & Out!" roars the Sun, who have projected those same words on the white cliffs of, you guessed it, Dover. "May Signs Us Out!" is the Metro's take.

"Brexit begins" is the i's more equivocal splash, "The eyes of history are watching" is the Times' take, while the Guardian opts for "Today Britain steps into the unknown".

The bigger story isn't the letter but its content, which leads the FT: "May signs historic Brexit letter and opens way for compromise". The government is finessing its red line on the competence of the European Court of Justice. (The word in Whitehall is that Theresa May hadn't grasped the importance of the ECJ as an arbitration mechanism after Brexit and for cross-border matters such as flights when she made her conference speech.)  And the PM has done a good job of not ruling out continuing payments to the European Union, her best path to the deal Britain needs.

A lot depends on what happens to the British economy between now and March 2019. The pound is down still further today but whether that's a minor eruption or the start of sustained losses will have significant consequences on how painful Britain's best path to the access we need to the single market - paying over the odds for the parts of membership that the British government wants to keep and swallowing that £50bn divorce bill - is doable or not.

For all the mood music emanating from May, she's quietly done a good job of clearing the obstacles to a deal where Britain controls its own immigration policy, continues to staff Europol and to participate in European-wide research, the bulk of our regulation is set by Brussels de facto if not de jure and we pay, say £250m a week into Brussels.

Our new relationship with the EU may be rather closer to our old one than we currently expect.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.