Labour promises to end Home Office "hostage" of universities

Chuka Umunna says the party will consider adopting a target for growth in foreign student numbers.

In his speech today on how Britain can succeed in (you guessed it) "the global race", David Cameron again boasted that the government had reduced net migration by more than a third. What he didn't say is that the fall has come at a significant economic cost. 

As IPPR's Sarah Mulley recently pointed out on The Staggers, the reduction in immigration has been driven by a fall in student numbers, with 56,000 fewer entering the UK (a 23 per cent drop) in the year to September 2012, something forecast to have cost the economy £725m (the sector is worth an estimated £8bn) .  

Cameron claims that the government has merely "shut down the bogus colleges that were a front for illegal immigration", but the figures show genuine students are being excluded. While visas issued to university students increased by 5 per cent in the year to March 2013, there was a 46 per cent decline in the number issued through further education colleges and English language schools (which act as large feeder institutions to universities) and a 7 per cent decline in those issued by private schools. As Jo Beall, the British Council director for education and society, has noted, "Many students use these courses as a step towards applying to our universities, so it presents a long-term risk if we diminish what was a big recruitment pool of students who had already chosen to study in the UK".

Fortunately, there are signs that Labour would end this economic self-harm. At the launch of IPPR's new report on higher education today, Chuka Umunna said that a future Labour government would consider reviving the initiative launched by Tony Blair which set "a clear numerical target for growth in international student numbers". 

"I’m certainly open to that and will talk to Yvette Cooper about [it]," he said.

He added: "My big problem with the government at the moment in this area is that our HE sector, as a strong and vibrant export sector, has been taken hostage by the Home Office. And it has to stop.

"It is doing deep and immense damage. We cannot afford for that to happen to a leading export sector, in the context of our balance of trade deficit."

If Labour wants to demonstrate how it would deliver growth where the government has failed, there are few better examples than this. 

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.