New immigration policies and higher education – a worrying policy cul-de-sac


BY Alex Balch

The damage being done to the UK’s higher education sector by the government’s immigration policies is becoming clearer as evidence mounts that the tightening of controls on international students is actually working.
June 28, 2012
This is backed up by a survey of international students in five countries carried out by the German Think Tank SVR (6,239 respondents, 2,210 based in the UK). The results suggest that prospective international students are very influenced by the likelihood of being able to gain some short-term work experience during or after their studies. This does not mean they all want to become permanent migrants – only 5.3% in the UK sample said they wanted to stay longer than 5 years – but it means the closing of the post-study work scheme this year could therefore have a significant effect on student numbers. The fact that other countries such as Germany (where student fees are also lower) are loosening access to the labour market for this group of migrants should be something the government takes careful note of.

The response of the sector thus far, primarily through the Universities UK campaign (but also backed up by the IPPR – Institute for Public Policy Research) is to lobby for international students to be exempted from the migration figures on the basis that only around ¼ will actually stay on beyond a few years. This seems to make some logical sense, but the stay rates for migrants in other categories are only marginally higher, so why single out international students? While the established definitions of migrants admittedly feel as if they are plucked from another era of international mobility, they are foundational for governments. Begin tinkering with one category and the whole system of migration controls starts looking rather shaky.

Another line of argument points to the potential costs to the UK economy, but again the government is standing firm. According to its own impact assessment (in 2011) the student visa reforms and removal of the post-study work route will cost around £2.4 billion to the UK over five years – hardly a rational move for a government that’s first priority is to put the country’s finances in order. Cutting immigration clearly has a higher political value.

Perhaps a third approach could be to appeal to the competitive instinct?The UK is a major player in international higher education but this position is being challenged – and not just by the usual suspects (US, Canada, Australia), but by our European partners. While the UK tightens its rules, other European countries are liberalising post-study work regimes. There is also anecdotal evidence that more British students are willing to pursue postgraduate study abroad, attracted by the lower fees and the growing number of institutions teaching in English.

What should we make of the government’s intransigence on this issue – particularly considering the propensity for u-turns in many other areas? For some it might seem as if the government has backed itself into a worrying policy cul-de-sac, for others it is a resumption of normal service in terms of Conservative policy on immigration. True, it was risky for the government to stake its reputation on the task of reducing net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. Perhaps the strategists were hoping that the recession would do most of the work anyway. As this does not seem to be working the logical solution is to target those easiest to deter from coming into the country.

The problem is that the public are most concerned about other types of migration less susceptible to government policymaking (i.e. irregular migration, asylum seeking). Here we see another gap between the New Labour equation on immigration in the early 2000s (before the back-pedalling) which went something like: ‘more good immigration = less bad immigration’. Now we have a return to the rather more familiar (albeit increasingly anachronistic) equation of: ‘all immigration = bad immigration’ – a mantra embedded in Home Office policy until the late 1990s. Ed Milliband’s apology over Labour’s immigration policy proves that the simplicity of this second equation is just too attractive for politicians.


Alex is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool. His research revolves around the question of international mobility and security, with specific interest in the politics of hospitality in Europe, and rights-based approaches to tackling forced labour and human trafficking. He is involved in a number of international collaborative projects looking at various aspects of immigration.



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