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.

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Why the Ed Stone continues to haunt Labour

The party has been fined a record £20,000 for undeclared election spending.

It’s one of the great unsolved political mysteries of our time. What really happened to the Ed Stone? Was it smashed in to little tiny pieces or is it still gathering moss in a warehouse? For those of you who have been living under a rock, or in this case a giant tablet, since last year’s general election — the Ed Stone was the much-mocked policy plinth which the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, promised to place in the rose garden of Downing Street if he won.  

It was unveiled amid much fanfare only to spark a wave of viral humiliation for the beleaguered Miliband. The Mole remembers peering painfully through its paws and trying to ignore the smirks of its fellow rodents. Now, the spectre of the ill-fated tablet has arisen to cause the Labour Party one final humiliation.  

An investigation by the Electoral Commission has revealed that two sums totalling £7,614 were spent on the Ed Stone which were missing from the party’s election return. The report found that in total Labour failed to correctly declare 74 payments worth £123,748 of campaign spending “without a reasonable excuse”. They were also missing 33 separate invoices totalling £34,392.

The commission said Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, who is also its registered treasurer, had committed two election offences and imposed a record £20,000 fine — the biggest since it began operating in 2001.

All of which has left the Labour Party red-faced once more, and the mole feeling slightly nostalgic for the days when politics was simple and the news was full of amusing images of politicians smearing bacon sandwiches across their faces and striking the odd biblical pose in front of a giant stone. Don’t forget, if the Ed Stone was standing proudly in Downing Street today, then Brexit would just be a bad dream.


I'm a mole, innit.