Few issues divide opinion as much as the net migration cap. The vast majority of the public think immigration is far too high. A small minority – myself included – is more liberal on the issue. Which is why I was encouraged to hear that George Osborne has, risking the wrath of the home secretary, indicated that foreign students will be excluded from official migration figures. It’s entirely possible, of course, that this is no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the news last week that net migration hit a new high of 336,000 in the 12 months to June. The news undermines both the Tories’ unachievable aim of reducing net migration to the low tens of thousands, and ministers’ increasingly fierce rhetoric on the subject.
But education is one of this country’s great success stories. Every year, thousands of students come here to study. Yet the government has made it difficult for them to enter, expensive to stay while studying, and virtually impossible to remain in the UK when their courses are finished, even though, as the Chancellor has pointed out, the British public is far more concerned with “permanent” migrants.
Migration Observatory research in 2011 found that only 29 per cent of the public included students among the groups that they think about when they think about immigrants, far less than the other major groups (asylum applicants, workers and family migrants). Of the students who arrived in 2006, only 17 per cent remained in the UK in 2011, and only 32 per cent of people want student numbers reduced. They’re right: we should encourage the best and brightest students to stay in Britain after graduating. We have a significant comparative advantage in higher education and if we fail to retain the best talent, we are wasting our excellent educational resources.
The government’s adherence to its crude migration target is clouding the debate on the costs and benefits of immigration, and threatening the UK’s reputation as an open, competitive economy. Excluding students from the cap would mitigate some of the harm caused by the arbitrary cap to British business – which has presented them from hiring the best programmers, engineers and scientists from around the world. It is often thought that only large corporations, especially within the financial sectors, recruit non-EU migrants. This is far from the truth: companies of all sizes and sectors benefit from employing non-EU migrant staff.
The government’s policies on immigration aren’t working. But excluding students from the net migration cap is a step in the right direction.