Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading and a Didcot Town Councillor.
To listen to some Ministers of late, you could be forgiven for thinking that our Universities are responsible for a significant and unwelcome contribution to the record high net migration numbers. The Home Office insists on including all incoming students from outside the EU in their target of reducing net immigration to the “tens of thousands” per year: that would be quite an achievement, since the Government insists that there is no cap on numbers of genuine students and in the year to March 2015, 188,000 arrived into the UK for long-term study.
Logically, if the government wishes to reduce total net migration, it shouldn’t care where that reduction comes from. If it doesn’t wish to see numbers from particular groups (such a students) decrease, why include them in the figures?
Perhaps my expectation that logic should come into this is somewhat naïve. I’m but a humble scientist who approaches things empirically: no wonder there aren’t any research scientists sitting on the green benches. You see, while ministers and civil servants in the Home Office are busy plotting to reduce the numbers of overseas students, their colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), egged on by the Treasury, are busily trying to increase them. It’s not exactly joined-up Government.
Globally, education is second only to healthcare in terms of total value, and is worth in excess of £17 billion annually in exports to the UK: Universities account for around two thirds of that. Moreover, the sector is due for significant and sustained growth over the coming decade, so it’s easy to see why a government, keen to trade its way out of economic trouble, wants to build on a success story. Education is pushed heavily as one of the key themes in the Government’s GREAT Britain marketing campaign and BIS, now run entirely by Conservatives, wishes to increase educational export earnings to £30 billion by the next election.
Overseas recruitment isn’t just a boon to the nation’s balance of payments. Universities play an important part in a country’s soft power, an area where the UK is world-leading. About one in ten of the world’s leaders were educated in the UK at some point, along with countless other politicians and international business people. Sure, there are some dodgy characters on the list, but overall, having had so many global opinion-formers plugged into this country and its culture can only be of long-term benefit.
Similarly, the participation of bright and motivated students from other cultures contributes to the all-round educational experience of students from the UK. They make a significant financial contribution to the running of our Universities too; our institutions and students would be the poorer for their absence, in more ways than one.
Politicians would doubtless respond with cloying platitudes about the UK being open for the brightest students and the need to weed out the bogus ones, but I know flannel when I see it. The rules and regulations regarding student visas are so onerous, both at the application stage and while the student is over here, that the number of abuses is very low. The bogus colleges have long since been closed and only institutions that have been licensed by the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) are able to sponsor visa applications. No, the “problem” the Government has is twofold. First, so many students come to the UK to study each year that, unless they’re excluded from the net immigration numbers, the target of below 100,000 is completely unrealistic without drastically capping the number of visas issued. Second, many stay after they graduate.
Three years ago, the post-study work visa was abolished by the Coalition Government; a move that was supposed to deal with this second “problem”. But it was really just window-dressing because overseas students managed to stay in the UK by obtaining Tier 2 visas for skilled workers from outside of the EU, a scenario in which the Government was complicit. A senior civil servant from UKBA, who shall remain nameless, flippantly announced to an international education conference at which I was present that post-study work had not been abolished and that “if you’ve got a PhD, you can stay to lay on the grass and soak up the sun, if that’s what you want”.
Under the Tier 2 system, graduates are able to use the skills they’ve acquired while being educated in the UK to stay here, provided that they can command a salary of at least £20,800. However, it’s not quite that simple: they can only get the visa if they’re sponsored by a UKBA licensed employer who can satisfy the agency that they are the only suitable candidate for the job. Simply being the strongest candidate isn’t enough.
These graduates are not taking jobs from anyone: they’re filling skills gaps and it’s grossly unfair to pretend anything else. This is a problem of economic success and if the UK can’t or won’t provide the necessary training for its workforce it will need to import people.
I worry that immigration of professionals with a tangible economic contribution to make is being conflated with scenes of mass movements of people, in order to create the impression that something is being done. The motivation of politicians who point the finger at students who stay after they graduate is lost on me. Either they wish to see graduate level jobs left unfilled, with the consequent lack of economic activity, or the only non-EU citizens they want here are those who’ve been educated elsewhere. Are we really to send a message out to the world that you’re welcome to work here, but only if you’ve been educated elsewhere? If we do, BIS can whistle for its £30 billion.