There’s no shortage of political news around. In any normal time, news that a prominent Cabinet minister disputes the Prime Minister’s method of counting net immigration would be a fairly large story. But in among Article 50, election expenses and the NICs u-turn, news that Liam Fox confessed to an “ongoing argument” in the Cabinet about the status of international students barely caused a ripple.
He isn’t the only minister to differ with May on the topic, and there’s strong support for excluding students from the immigration count from the business lobby as well as from universities themselves. Interestingly, a variety of polling evidence shows that while the public definitely want net immigration reduced, there’s little popular demand for that restriction to apply to students.
It’s easy to see why people are less opposed to students coming from overseas. They are really temporary migrants, coming here for a few years and for a specific purpose. They aren’t general additions to the workforce – they’re here for education. Due to their generally younger age, they are less likely to have children, and therefore make less use of public services. Several of the factors which make a lot of people anti-immigration don’t apply.
There’s also a good positive case for removing them from the calculation. When someone comes here to study, the UK makes a sizeable cash profit – effectively, they are customers of Higher Education as an export industry, paying large sums to study at our universities. They are better educated by definition, and thus their presence offers us an opportunity to identify and hire some of the world’s best young minds. And when they do decide to return home, there’s reason to think they become an overseas asset to the UK – remembering their time here positively, and continuing links with the country in later life which could lead to new opportunities to advance British interests, be it through diplomacy or trade.
As you’ll have guessed by now, I agree that students shouldn’t be counted in the net immigration figure. Counting – and therefore trying to reduce – their number doesn’t satisfy popular concern about immigration, but it does stand to harm our universities, our economy and our future international relationships. However, it doesn’t seem politically possible to do it overnight.
There are various reasons people might reasonably disagree with me on the topic – some of which are recounted in today’s FT. The Prime Minister, who spent six years trying to fulfil the unfulfillable (in the EU, at least) tens of thousands pledge, doesn’t want to do it – Nick Timothy used the issue as an example of misguided thinking on immigration in an article on this very site.
Even if she was persuaded that the measure is flawed, it’s hard to see a viable political route to making the change in the current circumstances.
What would happen if the Home Office changed its calculation? Immediately, some would accuse the Government of trying to fiddle the figures in order to pretend it was making progress. An electorate rendered justifiably sceptical after years of untruths about immigration would most likely believe that argument, rather than the explanations of why students shouldn’t have been included in the first place. It’s wrong that the system has been counting the wrong people for years, but it’s often easier to start on a mistaken approach than to escape it.
Now that the NICs row has returned the Conservative manifesto to the spotlight, that would be the next focus for objections. May supported the tens of thousands pledge when it was reiterated in 2015, at a time when that included students. By removing them, she would be portrayed as adding retrospective small print in order to try to wriggle off the hook of that promise – exactly the problem which ruined the Chancellor’s first Budget last week. They won’t want to revisit that maelstrom on an even more controversial topic.
Students should be removed from the count, but that can only happen when it is politically feasible. The obvious time would be in 2019, when we leave the EU. Then, for the first time in many years, the British Government would have full control of immigration policy. We should expect proposals to emerge swiftly as to how they intend to remodel that policy in order to fulfil the pledge – not least because an election will be a year away at most. Red meat and real action will at last be on offer to voters concerned about immigration, and the whole system will be up for discussion. At that point, with a new manifesto being written and years of public frustration being addressed at last, ministers can remove students from the count without a fight.