It seems that 2014 will end with yet more news on immigration. This time it involves the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and her push to change the immigration rules in order to require that all international students graduating at UK universities leave the country on completion of their course.
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MRN closed the year a full 12 months ago with an account of a ‘rag, tag and bobtail’ Parliamentary debate on immigration which took place in Westminster Hall.
At that time it involved the MP for Amber Valley, Nigel Mills making a last minute attempt to stop the lifting of the transitional controls which had prevented Bulgarians and Romanians accessing jobs in the mainstream labour market for the previous seven years. He lost the vote and the Immigration Bill accelerated towards the becoming law.
It seems that 2014 will end with yet more news of jostling and elbowing within the ranks of the government parties on immigration. This time it involves the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and her push to change the immigration rules in order to require that all international students graduating at UK universities leave the country on completion of their course. At the moment they are permitted to remain in the country to apply for jobs under the terms of Tier 2, or setup a business in Tier 1, extend their PHD in Tier 4, or gain work experience in Tier 5, of the Points-Based Scheme (PBS).
Mrs May thinks that by ending these routes to an extension of residence permits will address a problem she says exists which involves international students staying on without permission and thereby adding to the numbers of irregular migrants in the country.
It is hard to credit the sense of this idea. The students who are permitted to remain under the terms of the PBS are not adding to the numbers of people breaking the immigration rules for the simple reason that they have been told by her government department that they can remain in compliance with those rules. The actual numbers affected here would be around 6,000 students, a mere 3 percent of the overall 176,000 that came to the UK in 2014.
Plenty of critical voices have spoken up to protest against the daftness of an idea that hits at the interests of one of Britain’s most successful service industries – namely higher education – which has a poll position to maintain in the highly competitive global race to attract fee-paying students to its universities and colleges. Her partners in the coalition government, the Lib Dems, have rushed to brand it as a ‘silly’ idea.
One suspects that there will be others as equally alarmed. International students have provided a rich flow of talent to many British businesses looking for employers who will help prise open access for their goods and services in overseas markets. If recovery from the deepest recession in a century is to continue it will be because these companies have the skills in their staff teams which can access business opportunities aboard and do the sort of deals that allow small and medium sized enterprises to grow stronger and win more orders.
There is also the sense that this proposal is purely a cynical political attack on foreign students as part of the cat and mouse game between key players jostling for the leadership of the Conservative Party with the Prime Minister and as a result Theresa May is deliberately undermining David Cameron on the issue of student migration. The Prime Minister has been part of a search party sent to India on many occasions to calm anxieties about Theresa May’s student rhetoric, which is hurting UK universities, and this latest announcement will certainly be viewed as a clear shot at Downing Street in response to the cull of special advisors linked to May, who are currently seeking safe Conservative parliamentary seats.
Major problems arise from this verbal jousting:
- It only caters to the mainstream media who like to stir up the Westminster bubble. Politicians will look silly, public trust will continue to plummet, and students, universities, and SMEs are the only real victims.
- This latest announcement will do more damage to the current declining popularity of UK universities. It will give succour to Australia, the UK’s main competition, which is currently attracting higher levels of Indian students that would have at one time scrambled for the UK. The closure of the previous Tier 1 post-study work visa has done much damage to the UK’s attractiveness abroad.
The Tory backbench revolt on the issue of Bulgarians and Romanians failed at the end of last year, and, even with 50,000 people from these countries registering in the UK labour force, the evidence is clearly on the side that they slotted into the jobs market and have been doing their bit to help the country grow out of the doldrums.
This time the insurgency has come not from the Conservative backbenches, but one of its most prominent ministers in government. We have to hope that Mrs May’s colleagues will see that it is, like her previous attempts to introduce the visa bonds and go home vans, a non-starter for SMEs and the UK’s ability to be a global competitor.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Awale Olad is the Public & Parliamentary Affairs Officer at MRN, coordinating the work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration, supporting parliamentarians and policy makers on establishing a cross-party consensus on immigration policy.