Immigration Myths and Overseas Students

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The government is greatly embarrassed by figures for net immigration of just over 500,000 for the year to June 2022. The embarrassment isn’t new and follows a decade in which net immigration has consistently been well in excess of the target maximum of 100,000: a figure seemingly dreamt up in the bath by David Cameron before the 2010 election but of almost religious significance for Conservatives. The failure is all the more galling since the main promise of Brexit was to reduce immigration through ‘control over our borders’.

In practice the figures are misleading and should not be over-interpreted. The sudden increase from a figure of around zero in mid 2021 reflects the recovery from abnormal Covid conditions in which overseas students, in particular, operated remotely and have now come in numbers for in-person tuition; in other words, the numbers are inflated by the lifting of Covid restrictions rather than more permissive immigration controls. The numbers are also temporarily boosted by an influx of Ukrainian refugees, rightly welcomed as Britain’s contributionto the war.

The number of overseas student visas has however attracted the ire of the Home Secretary. Students account for around a sizeable part of the total of net immigrants which is why they have been a target for this and previous Home Secretaries anxious about the numbers (they account for 277,000 of the gross immigration figure of 1.1 million and over half of the net immigration number of 504,000, June to June). I recall as Business Secretary in the Coalition having a running battle with the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was constantly trying to restrict student visa numbers.

Overseas students are part of the immigration statistics since, under international conventions, immigrants are classified as those who come to stay for over a year. And most UK university and college courses last for three years plus an extra year which is allowed for post-study work and is often an important adjunct to an academic qualification (and helps to fill temporary gaps in the local labour market). But the students, overwhelmingly, return after the expiry of the visa and so are not permanent immigrants. An obvious question is why the net figures do not pick-up the returning students, such that the net figure is close to zero. The simple answer is that the immigration control system is not organised to monitor and count people leaving; we are, after all, not a prison like North Korea.

The Home Office claims that a significant proportion of the students never go back and put forward ‘guesstimates’ based on voluntary surveys at airports to justify their scepticism. However, common sense suggests that overseas students are an improbable source of sizeable illegal immigration. Students pay very large fees — typically around £30,000 per annum for UK universities, excluding accommodation and other living costs. It beggars belief that students whose families or sponsors were able to afford to pay well over £100,000 for a university education should need to stay behind as illegal immigrants working precariously in a car wash or restaurant kitchen.

It was certainly the case that, a decade or more ago, there was some organised evasion operating through colleges and language schools offering bogus qualifications. But that loophole has long since been closed and visas are only available through bona fide institutions which can prove that they have systems in place to register, teach and monitor their students. I recall in government that some universities lost their status as ‘trusted providers’ on the basis of deficiencies in their paperwork, rather than deliberate evasion, with the students on suddenly suspended courses simply abandoned with no support and no qualification to show for their expensive tuition fees.

There is a recognition everywhere except in the Home Office that overseas students are a valuable export. They not only spend large sums in the UK but they help to keep British universities afloat since domestic student fees are inadequate to cover universities’ costs especially for expensive degrees like science and engineering. Moreover, there is a fiercely competitive international market for overseas students in which British institutions vie with colleges in the USA, Canada and Australia. Countries like India, which Britain is seeking to cultivate in order to secure a post-Brexit bilateral trade agreement, are also very sensitive to how their students (often children of the governing class) are treated in the UK.

It is clear that Ms Braveman, the Home Secretary, does not buy the arguments about the benefits of overseas students. Preoccupied by the headline numbers, she has promised a ‘crack down’. This is to take the form of cutting visas for dependents — that is, married students — and for those seeking ‘low quality’ degrees. I recall the same pejorative language being used to dismiss any university not in the Russell Group. Other than sheer academic snobbery, it is difficult to see the substance behind this distinction. In ‘left behind’ parts of Britain it is often the less fashionable and less prestigious, but good quality, new universities which are a mainstay of the local economy. It is reassuring to hear that the Chancellor is warning that the proposed ‘crackdown’ will ‘harm the economy’ and that the Education Secretary is committed to defending British universities.

Just as the student numbers are artificially inflated by the post-Covid resumption of face-to-face tuition, there are other factors which have temporarily boosted net immigration numbers. There are the emergency schemes for Hong Kong and Afghan refugees as well as Ukrainians (an estimated 138,000 in total). And there are the asylum seekers, though the vast majority of the high profile cases who came in rubber dinghies across the Channel (62,000 in this period) are in limbo, part of the 140,000 having their claims processed.

A large proportion of the remaining half million plus who came in this period were overseas workers (plus some dependents of migrants already settled here). There was a net outflow of EU nationals of 50,000: Europeans who could not get post-Brexit visas or no longer see the UK as a good place to live and work. So the big inflow occurred from outside the EU: Asia and Africa. Brexit appears to changed the face of immigration but not the numbers. The Australian-style points system once touted as the answer to the immigration ‘problem’ has managed to frustrate employers because of its lack of flexibility while failing to reduce overall numbers. One could add that the prevalence of black and brown faces in place of white East Europeans is not quite what the Brexiters had in mind when they inveighed against uncontrolled ‘mass’ immigration.

So, what are the alternatives for a government which wants to show that it is cutting immigration but also supporting economic growth? it may be that these are incompatible objectives; the Office of Budget Responsibility projections suggest that a revival of growth needs more immigration, not less. Yet politically this is a difficult message and both Sunak and Starmer are repeating the old mantra that Britain needs instead to increase the productivity of its existing labour force through skill training and capital investment, both of which are long term and elusive objectives. But in the meantime there is acute labour shortage in some sectors of the economy, often in relatively unskilled service sector roles. Nor is it clear where the British workers are going to come from to fill them since unemployment is low and employment is historically very high (and difficult to increase from younger age groups without much more generous and extensive child care).

What has happened after Covid is that large numbers, perhaps half a million workers, have left the labour force. Some are victims of long Covid. But the majority appear to be those of middle age who have made the decision to retire early. That leaves a set of difficult options. One is to make retirement a much less attractive option and for the elderly to work, if not until they drop, at least for some years longer contributing work and tax revenues. But the carrots, like tax relief, are expensive and the sticks — like a compulsorily delayed state pension — unpalatable. A second option is to accept the fact that growth won’ t happen which makes the choices around public spending, debt management and tax all the more difficult. That is why the Home Secretary’s intervention to curb economically valuable overseas students is so damaging and foolish. The third is to accept that, Brexit or no Brexit, immigration at high levels is here to stay.