Playing along with the immigration game

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Are international students immigrants? Surely it depends on whether students decide – and are able – to stay in the host country after graduation. In a seminar held in London recently, entitled ‘Competing globally: The impact of government immigration policy on UK universities’, Universities UK (UUK) argued that international students at universities should be excised from migration statistics. It was pointed out a number of times that international students were not counted in immigration figures in the US and Australia.

For the UK to do this too is both entirely sensible and currently politically impossible. Sensible because international students are clearly not permanent migrants: about 3% end up settled in the UK five years after graduating. In the words of the UUK President, Professor Eric Thomas, they come, they study, they leave. But it is impossible politically because the government is committed to a wildly ambitious immigration-reduction target which is rooted in a populist discourse that posits student numbers as a problem.

Overall net annual migration into the UK was 252,000 in 2011, higher than it was the year before. The Home Office and UK Border Agency (UKBA) somehow have to get this down to 100,00. That would require a cut to international student numbers of about 90,000 because students are the single largest chunk of the total. Such decimation is not going to happen so the government will already be looking for a way out of the mess. The government has been drawn into a discourse which overlooks the simple fact that a reduction in student numbers will not reduce permanent migration.

This is mainly a problem of the government’s own making. It is a good example of policy-making on the hoof (during the 2010 election campaign) and driven by having concluded that the particular prejudices of tabloid newspapers express the actual public mood, though it is true that prejudices and misconceptions about international students are shared by many people – see this week’s YouGov poll for UUK. The use of bogus colleges to gain permanent and illegal entry to the UK was identified as a genuine problem years before, and has been quite effectively tackled. But the legitimate HE and FE sectors are paying a price.

The new policies include the removal of the automatic right to work for two years after graduation – which, of course, was originally introduced to make the UK a more attractive destination. This has not only had a most damaging impact on the perception of the UK as a welcoming country. It has affected students already in the country and close to graduation: removing their right to stay and work looks like a simple breach of contract.

Not surprisingly, it has also driven a wedge between the Home Office/UKBA, on the one hand, and the Foreign Office and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), on the other. Obviously, the Home Office is also working counter to one of the British Council’s core mandates: to attract students to the UK. On 9 February the Council dismissed the Home Office/UKBA approach as short-termist and called for an urgent review of visa policy. It said the UK could now be singled out as the country with the toughest immigration regime, while Canada, the US and Australia would draw ‘genuine and career-driven’ students away.

At this week’s seminar, the Home Office representative acknowledged that all sides had become battle-weary. In response to the suggestion that the US was gaining Indian students who had turned their backs on the UK, he said that if it was true, the US had a strict visa regime and the reasons must be unrelated.

Interestingly enough, the US-UK Fulbright Commission reports new HESA and UCAS data showing that more American students than ever are coming to the UK: a record 15,555 in 2010-11. The number of US postgraduates at UK institutions rose by 15% between 2008-9 and 2010-11, and there is a 10% increase in US applicants for 2012-13.

Back at the seminar, the Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, returned to the theme of perception: Indians now believe that it has become tougher to study in the UK. He closed by urging the HE sector to ‘forget the Home Office’ and deal directly with the PM’s office and BIS. It seems unlikely that UUK will take his advice fully, though it is interesting to see the tougher line being taken by UUK now, compared to the gentler noises made when the policy was announced in April 2011.

If the UK government responds to UUK and Select Committee demands to take international students off the books, the tabloids will call foul at the sleight of hand. Another option might be to abandon the national immigration target outright and to substitute quotas for international students at individual universities by capping their numbers as a proportion of the whole student body.

The panel was asked whether a regulated market for international students is very far off. The introduction of such a regulated market would be a first in the UK. It would likely be interpreted as an infringement of university autonomy, even if some institutions already have such a policy internally. (It would be doubly noteworthy because the regulated domestic market is in the process of being partially deregulated: from autumn 2012 universities will be able to admit any number of new UK undergraduates who attain grades of AAB or better through the idiosyncratic UCAS admissions system. Some universities have very high proportions of such students. The ones that do not will face admissions caps, lower each year, unless or until they lower their tuition fees from the new ceiling of £9000.)

France has similarly experienced a populist convulsion over immigration in the last year – possibly in response to opinion polls that showed the Front National as a real threat in the approaching presidential elections. A similar division between ministries on regulating the transition from studies to work has also characterised the student immigration issue in in that country.

A now-infamous ‘circulaire’ from the Interior Minister Claude Guéant in May 2011 instructed officials to apply greater scrutiny to work permit applications for non-Europeans. This was followed in August by another decree that halved the list of jobs for which there were labour shortages. The consequence was an increase in refusals for changes from student to work visas and media stories about ‘high-potential’ foreign students having to leave the country. France was said to be shooting itself in the foot and compromising its international competitiveness in the midst of an economic crisis.

The Australian newspaper suggested in November that France was showing the world what not to do in regard to visas for international students. In April 2011 Australia had already eased student-visa requirements for 38 countries in an attempt to reverse a decline in the number of international applicants after stricter rules were introduced.

There were of course student protests in France, and an opposition movement under the banner Collectif du 31 mai is active. But it was apparently the intervention of Medef, the French business confederation (many of whose members are natural supporters of the conservative government), that led, in January 2012, to the plan being rethought. The new Higher Education & Research Minister, Laurent Wauquiez, was widely quoted as having acknowledged that ‘we messed up’. He now plans a diplomatic charm offensive and has been charged with finding a way to regulate immigration without blocking higher education and the businesses that require highly skilled people – all presumably in time for the elections in April and May.

The November 2011 meeting of the Canadian Bureau for International Education was told that Canada’s competitors had suffered serious setbacks and that the window of opportunity might not stay open for very long. France’s discomfort is one such opportunity and Canada is well-placed to benefit from international students from la Francophonie who seek more welcoming destinations. As we noted in our Borderless Report of April 2011, international students are seen as prospective immigrants in Canada, and even the most guarded and distrustful federal government in living memory has no problem with that.

An intervention from the floor that argued that universities were not in the immigration game (meaning they should not be) got the most approval from the audience. But Professor Thomas closed by noting that the sector was in the debate and had been for a long time.

The title of the immigration seminar – ‘Competing globally’ – shows what it means to be in the immigration game. The emphasis on competition is partly a tactical thing: it is designed to remind governments that higher education should matter to them. And it should, in good economic times and bad. But the trade-off is that it plays into a government-friendly and instrumental vision of what HE is for: enhancing national economic self-interest. Viewed from afar, today the UK looks difficult and other countries more welcoming. The policy pendulum keeps swinging and in two years the picture will be different.

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