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Migration 'double game' can't last

In an article for University World News, Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, says that migration has spooked the UK government. He notes that this government is "an uneasy alliance of cosmopolitan business in the City of London with old-fashioned patriotism and parochialism". It is no wonder that migration...

04-09-2015 by University World News

In a recent article in The Sunday Times, the UK Home Secretary Theresa May proposes that European Union free movement should only apply to people who had already secured a job.  May maintains that even though "rigorous control" of the UK's student migration system had helped reduce the number of further education visa applications, long-term immigration for study had risen. The Home Secretary notes that “too many students are not here temporarily", adding that in the UK, the government had to "break the link between short-term study and permanent settlement".

According to Simon Marginson, "migration has spooked the UK government". He notes that there is "widespread opposition to migration outside London, and this particular government is an uneasy alliance of cosmopolitan business in the City of London with old-fashioned patriotism and parochialism. Migration splits its support base".   Marginson explains that the issue has become joined to three other separate and highly emotional problems: labour market competition in a relatively stagnant economy, refugees fleeing Syria and Africa and the threat of terrorist attack inside the UK. This is why it has become unmanageable.

The government cannot be seen to be soft on British jobs, supportive of an open door to refugees or soft on terror.  This has put it in a position whereby it has become locked into a nominally anti-migration position.

"The dilemma for the government is impossible" says Marginson. "Without curbing economic migration dramatically, it simply has no way of getting numbers down from 330,000 to ’tens of thousands’, as pledged. But it cannot limit numbers sufficiently to please the Tory branches and the UK Independence Party, UKIP, while at the same time managing a modern capitalist economy. Business needs migrant labour and the UK needs to remain open to foreign talent in a globalised world". 

It is a fantasy to believe that a massive cut to immigration by two-thirds or more, a target of ‘tens of thousands’ is possible. But politically, the government has to talk tough even if it has no intention of implementing that promise.

Marginson admits that so far the Prime Minister has avoided the kind of major changes to migration policy that would hurt business. 'Speak loudly and carry a small stick’ is the approach. "Theresa May is wheeled out to do the tough talking when it is needed, such as when the latest record increase in numbers is announced". 

But what about the next phase?

This double game cannot be pursued forever says Marginson.  Sooner or later the government will have to do more.  "It will have to really cut net migration numbers. In this context Theresa May’s statement is also preparation for that next and nastier phase of the migration debate".   May's statement suggests that the actual cuts in numbers will more than likely come from the skilled labour component of the intake. 

According to Marginson, it is here that the government has a specific problem. "Despite the increased restrictions on postgraduate work visas there are still many international student graduates able to secure adequately paid skilled work after graduation and thereby put themselves on a migration track. And there is a very large number of international students in the UK". 

Harder to work

So Theresa May is now promising to "break the link between short-term study and permanent settlement" in the UK. Presumably this would be done by making it harder for graduate international students to work in the UK, possibly by abolishing graduate work visas altogether, so that graduates could only secure the right to work after leaving the country.

This would substantially reduce migration through the international student route.  It would also deliver an overall cut in net migration numbers in two ways:  (1) it would reduce permanent migration by cutting down the number of graduate international students who stay in UK; and (2) in terms of numbers and being seen to do something, it would deter many student applicants and would generate an overall fall in the number of students admitted on temporary student visas.  The second of these is perhaps more important since student visas are part of the net migration statistics.

This might please UKIP and the Tory backbench and deliver a short-term poll bounce, but it would generate two medium term problems for the government, which would become increasingly obvious in the lead-up to the next election.  First, business will become increasingly unhappy, and second, higher education revenues will fall sharply.

A cut to international student numbers of say 50% would be a lasting setback to the education export industry.  Even a cut of 20% would create a fiscal hole of several billion pounds. International students have been essential to making austerity work in education. Without them, the money has to come from somewhere else.

According to Marginson, the "UK government policy cancels itself out".

Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, and will be director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education (commencing on 12 November 2015). He is also joint editor-in-chief, Higher Education.