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Osborne's Chinese visa move shows Tory contradictions on immigration

While trumpeting greater immigration as an economic good in the case of China, ministers are strangling it elsewhere.

George Osborne delivers a speech at Peking University in Beijing earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

A casual observer of the government's actions in the last week could be forgiven for asking whether it believes greater immigration is a good or bad thing. Last Thursday, Theresa May published the Immigration Bill, aimed at creating a "hostile environment" for illegal migrants (many of whom have merely overstayed their visas) but also at burdening legal migrants with new rules and regulations such as a £200 charge to use the NHS. 

But today George Osborne is trumpeting plans to introduce a new visa system making it easier for Chinese business leaders and tourists to visit the UK and to work and study here. In the future, rather than applying for UK visas, Chinese travel agents will only be required to submit the EU’s Schengen visa form (an irony not lost on the government's europhile critics). In addition, ministers will introduce a new 24 hour "super priority" visa service from next summer. The Treasury press release notes that "Chinese students make up the largest group of foreign nationals in UK schools and universities. The UK is also the number one destination for Chinese investment in Europe, attracting nearly £2 billion in the last year alone and more than 600 Chinese businesses who now have a presence in the UK."

The government's clear (and correct) conclusion, on this occasion, is that immigration is an economic good and should be encouraged. But this judgement is entirely at odds with its decision to impose an immigration cap aimed at reducing migration to "tens of thousands" a year. In response to the Chinese visa announcement, Theresa May boasted that "we are continuing to attract the brightest and best to work and study in the UK, while preventing immigration abuse and bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands". But the facts show the former aim is contradicted by the latter.

The reduction in immigration since 2010 has largely been driven by a fall in the number of foreign students, with 56,000 fewer entering the UK (a 23% drop) in the year to September 2012, a decline forecast to have cost the economy £725m (the sector is worth an estimated £8bn).

David 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% in the year to March 2013, there was a 46% decline in the number issued through further education colleges and English language schools (which act as large feeder institutions to universities) and a 7% 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".  

With ministers unable to restrict EU immigration (unless they leave the club altogether), their only option is to squeeze non-EU migration as hard as it can and that means closing the door to thousands of would-be students (including many from China). Richard Lambert, the Chancellor of Warwick University and the former head of the CBI, has written of how "The UK Border Agency is putting intense pressure on several institutions, including well-run ones, where vice-chancellors claim they are having to account for their international students’ whereabouts almost in real time."

China's status as the world's emerging economic hegemon means the government is relaxed about making the case for greater migration from it. But it cannot do so and simultaneously maintain that its dogmatic immigration cap is not strangling growth.