We can't afford to leave foreign students out in the cold

Especially all night, in queues.

In a Sun article a few weeks ago, Theresa May boasted: “We saw a record 62 per cent drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012.” Year on year, they fell by a third to 213,836. I suppose some congratulations are due to the Tory Home Secretary and her party – they are successfully destroying Britain’s reputation as a leading destination for higher education. Foreign students bring in an estimated £12.5bn a year, but it’s not as if the country needs to exploit its competitive sectors during the deepest recession in a century, is it? 

May went on in the same piece to blame immigration for increased “pressure on our health, education, transport and welfare services” – all areas that the Conservative Party has industriously been assaulting with its poorly thought-out and expensive policies, which have seen the national deficit climb 22 per cent so far this year.

Despite May’s triumphant tone in reporting the drop in student visas, the universities minister David “Opportunities For Women Ended Up Magnifying Social Divides” Willetts (of all people) recently suggested a sensible movement towards decoupling foreign student figures from those measuring net migration. "I want to make clear the attitude of the government," he said. "There is no limit on the number of legitimate students from overseas studying at British universities." Net migration will still include foreign students but the publication of disaggregated figures within migration statistics will hopefully help reorientate the debate in a healthier direction – ie, away from May's hot air.

International students are not, on the whole, permanent migrants. That’s why other major English-language education exporters such as Australia and the US don’t even include them in immigration caps. However, because as many as two in every five arrivals to the UK are here to study, the temptation to down-engineer their figures is irresistible to a government that has pledged to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands".

Phantom menace

Meanwhile, UK institutions are slipping down international league tables as a result of what the Times Higher Education World University Rankings editor Phil Baty has called a “perfect storm” of “falling public investment in teaching and research; hostile visa conditions discouraging the world’s top academics and students from coming here; and serious uncertainty about where our next generation of scholars will come from, with a policy vacuum surrounding postgraduate study”. Is this a deliberate Tory strategy? Maybe if they make British higher education really rubbish, those menacing foreigners will just go away?

Or how about making them stand around in queues through the night to register their stay in this country? This week, footage by Daniel Stevens of the National Union of Students emerged showing students from 42 countries lining the streets in their hundreds in the early hours of the morning, hoping to make their seven-day deadline to check in with the Overseas Visitors Records Office. "It is absolutely unacceptable that students be asked to be queue for hours, often in terrible weather, and be expected to arrive before 6.30am to have any chance of being seen," said Stevens to the BBC. Queuing has long been considered "a sacred part of British culture" but . . . seriously.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Hospitality fail: a protester in London in August. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.