Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 30 August 2012

The pernicious politics of immigration

There can be a rational debate about the costs and benefits of immigration, and what that implies about immigration controls. And there can be political debate, which is nearly always something different. I know this is an issue in the US, but I suspect we in the UK have probably more experience in how to be really nasty to foreigners who want to come here.

Probably most UK academics have some experience of how the UK authorities deal with student visas. A recent case I was involved with concerned a student who had their visa refused because of a mistake that the immigration officials acknowledged was their own. However they would only overturn the decision if the student went through an expensive appeals process, or reapplied through a solicitor, which was still expensive but less so. They did the latter, successfully and with university support, but the whole process took time and caused considerable distress. Not only did the bureaucracy make a mistake, it also made the innocent party pay for the bureaucracy’s mistake.

The latest example is the UK Border Agency’s decision to revoke the right of the London Metropolitan University to sponsor students from outside the EU. The Agency has problems with the university’s monitoring of these students. Whether or not the Agency has a case against the university, the decision means that over 2,500 students, many of whom are midway through their course, have 60 days to find an alternative institution to sponsor them or face deportation. The Agency has no reason to believe, and has not claimed, that the majority of them are not perfectly genuine students who have paid good money to study in the UK. The Agency does not have to punish innocent students to punish the university. I guess it might call them collateral damage, but in this case the damage seems easily avoidable.

The government has apparently set up a ‘task force’ to help these students. Its work will not be easy, but it is certainly not going to make the emotional distress these students are currently suffering go away. What it does illustrate is that this decision is no unhappy accident due to an overzealous arm of government. It looks like a deliberate government attempt to show that it is being ‘tough on immigration’.

Aside from the human cost, there is the economic damage this does to an important UK export industry. There are around 300,000 overseas students in the UK. Universities UK estimates that these students contribute £5 billion a year (0.3% of GDP) in fees and off-campus expenditure. Unlike the rest of the UK economy, this is an export industry that has been growing rapidly, but in a highly competitive market. Changes to visa regulations already announced has led to study visas issued in the year to June 2012 falling sharply compared with the previous 12 months. It is pretty obvious what impact the most recent decision involving London Met will have on prospective students trying to decide whether to come to the UK or go elsewhere.
Student visas are not the only area involving immigration where rational argument and sensible cost benefit analysis (of the economic or more general kind) goes out of the window when political decisions are made. Jonathan Portes notes renewed pressure from parts of government to further deregulate the UK labour market. While this seems a little strange for a labour market which is much less regulated than most in Europe, it ignores the huge increase in regulation the government has created as a result of tightening immigration rules. He says "The extra employment regulation that the Government has imposed on employers wishing to employ migrant workers—the cap on skilled migration—will, using the Government's own methodology, reduce UK output by between £2 and 4 billion by the end of the Parliament."

Numbers like this are important, and it makes you wonder how serious the government is about doing everything it can to get the economy moving again. But what really makes me angry is the human misery this kind of decision causes. Having seen one case at first hand, I can imagine what 2,500 others are currently going through. But of course they do not have a vote, and it would seem that in the eyes of the Minister responsible, Damian Green, the votes he thinks he has gained by this decision are worth this collateral damage.


  1. Well said. They're nasty, and incompetent.

    This decision came right from the top. I think Cameron and Osborne have an agenda for education as well. Ask yourself why London Met?

  2. As a whole, the student visa system has been abused by obscure colleges who had no real reason to sponsor students. The sudden action of the UKBA is confusing, why not just stop a university from sponsoring future visas, review all current students on visas and then rectify the situation with those who are in violation.

    And why London Met, because London Met is a poor quality university with a track record of not following the rules on non-EU students, a university who was given 6 months to sort it out which they failed to do. Maybe the university was only expecting a substantial fine as they received when they "over-registered" students to get more money, but the government has a duty to protect its' citizens, and ensure the enforcement of the law.

  3. If this had been Oxbridge or one of the Russell Group universities , would the government have taken the same course of action.

  4. Your last sentence sums up the 'thinking' behind the decision. There are lots of ways of sorting out any problems that exisit but none makes as good headlines as the smack of firm govrnment -whatever the monetary or human cost.

  5. What is the UKBA thinking? It could punish Lon Met by cutting off future students, but instead it chooses to punish current students. What on earth will a potential student think now? (I speak as someone with reservations about overseas students at UK universities - but they should be treated fairly and rationally).

  6. UK Academics are proud that they have created an export industry based on the education of students from overseas (almost a quarter of a million last year). This industry provides employment and advancement for academics.

    There are many potential problems with this industry. The most important problem is whether or not this huge intake of people from abroad should have the right or ability to remain in the UK. The Border Agency used to say that the immigration rules were favourable to continued residence and this would "enhance the UK's overall offer to international students" (see Should universities and Colleges be financed by offering residence in the UK?). Certainly foreign students comprise a major portion of immigration to the UK (see ONS Predicted Population of the UK) so universities have been acting as immigration agencies and providing a major impetus towards our current, potentially disastrous, population growth.

    Another issue is the general quality of the university experience. I have talked to many ex-students who have said that it can be very lonely in universities that have high foreign intakes. The overseas contingent tend to stay in national groups and the university has little of the extra-curricular life that should be expected.

    However, academics get a huge advantage from this industry.

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