Immigration: politics matter more than statistics

by Andy Westwood on July 3, 2012

In the last couple of weeks we have seen several media stories about immigration and international students. Eighty VCs and Chairs wrote to the PM to ask that international students be removed from the migration statistics. It’s a very well organised and argued case – such students bring income, diversity, knowledge and they mostly leave afterwards, but stay plugged into UK networks for the rest of their lives.

Counter arguments have been made too. The Home Office have been quick to say that whilst here, international students use housing, transport and other public services just like any other migrant (although they are not entitled to draw benefits). In the words of Home Office minister Damian Green it would be ‘silly’ not to include them, especially as the UN do so in their guidelines. Furthermore, the public and the media might accuse the Government of fiddling the statistics just to hit their political promises. Worse still there are broader attacks that undermine public sympathy for the position of universities – ranging from the Daily Telegraph’s recent (and rather ridiculous) article on university admissions to more worrying and longer running headlines about campus extremism.

Despite these counter accusations and background noise about crime, terrorism and admissions, the immigration debate is becoming increasingly technical, with universities arguing for different OECD measures and inevitably, the need for more and better data. The OECD does measure migration differently to the UN – I have worked for them on several migration studies and of course their basic stance supports free trade, free movement of labour and a frequent diagnosis that most OECD economies need more young, skilled labour that only migration can bring. They are right of course but on this subject it doesn’t look like Government or much of the voting public are going to listen.

Why is that? Ultimately it is because this isn’t a technical or even an economic debate. Like many other issues it is about politics and the concerns of voters – informed and uninformed. We find ourselves in a corner because the Conservatives (and not their coalition partners the Lib Dems) pledged to bring down immigration from the hundreds to the tens of thousands in their last election manifesto. And it’s a popular policy – a response to perceptions that too many migrants entered the UK under New Labour – and especially from the EU accession countries. Of course the undercurrents about crime and terrorism are equally significant and emotive – and bring a different kind of pressure on universities and the arguments.

Ed Miliband’s recent speech apologised for the ‘uncontrolled migration’ under Labour and tried to address the problems that voters think exist – EU and non EU migrants and asylum seekers jumping the queue for housing, jobs, benefits and so on. His ideas on how to tackle it weren’t quite so well thought through – but then again neither have been the Government’s.

Those voters concerned by migration will still perceive the same pressures in the labour market and on public services even if the Government deliver on their ‘statistical’ promise. The political ‘doorstep’ test is important because this is how the debate really develops from here. When a visiting candidate for council or parliament says they’ve reduced migration – it will mean little unless voters can see the evidence in their own day to day lives.

So the Government may indeed meet its targets but little is likely to really change in migration ‘hotspots’ in Boston, Barking or Brighton or even in the minds of those voters far away from such places. Worse still for Conservative MPs may be that voters simply don’t believe them or perhaps even accuse them of fiddling the figures when they see no evidence of change in their own communities and lives. And along the way there will be the real impact of less students, less income and less businesses operating in constituencies than today. So the Government could hit their target and miss the point while irreparably damaging the economy and their own electoral credibility at the same time.

If we want to win the argument about international students and migration we will have to do so by convincing government that they will get little political credit for what they are doing. Fulfilling political promises is always important and especially in defining issues such as immigration and crime. To get the Government to change their minds we need to persuade them that they won’t really be delivering their promise if they do so this way – that voters simply won’t believe they’ve changed anything. And we as a higher education community could do more too – we could be more sympathetic to the concerns and fears of the same voters on the issues and impacts of migration and to all of the political parties currently struggling with what they can really do, we could come up with some better ideas.

This blog originally appeared at GuildHE.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sam Brown July 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Interesting article, though the main point to be drawn is really just that you agree something else must be done to persuade the government; you provide little suggestion as to what that may be!

I attended a London First meeting last week on student immigration. University representatives seem to be in agreed uproar at the government’s new border control guidelines. That is, the government has now said that students immigrating into the UK will have to undergo basic English language tests at the border upon arrival (despite them undergoing English language tests for their respective institutions prior to arrival). Do you think this is such a big deal?

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