Our plan to control immigration will put you, your family and the British people first. We will reduce the number of people coming to our country with tough new welfare conditions and robust enforcement. We will: keep our ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands; control migration from the European Union, by reforming welfare rules; clamp down on illegal immigration and abuse of the Minimum Wage; enhance our border security and strengthen the enforcement of immigration rules; develop a fund to ease pressure on local areas and public services.
We must work to control immigration and put Britain first
Controlling immigration – surely everyone agrees that some control is needed? Surely we all know that we can’t just take in anyone who wants to come here, whether or not they can contribute, whatever the cost? Well, I certainly haven’t heard anyone arguing that we should just shut down the border controls and let ‘em all come.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about how these controls are to be implemented, about what the criteria are, and how they are interpreted in real cases, and about what level of net migration we should be aiming it, if indeed having that kind of target is helpful.
The government promised to get annual net migration down to the tens of thousands. It failed, fairly dramatically, to do so, but reasserts that ambition in the Manifesto. The truth, almost universally acknowledged, is that these targets were never worked out in any systematic way, they were a back of a fag packet attempt to come up with a figure that might appease the Ukippers. There are all sorts of problems with the way the net migration figures are worked out, and all sorts of arguments about what should and shouldn’t be included.
The failure to meet this arbitrary target is blamed in the manifesto on EU migrants turning up in larger numbers than had been anticipated. But given that we are not currently in a position to limit free movement within the EU, the weight falls all the more heavily on those categories that they can control – those coming here from outside the EU on student visas or work permits, or to join family members already here.
So there are three aspects to the policy that is likely to be announced in the Queen’s speech and enacted in this Parliament – the attempt to negotiate new rules with the EU to control migration by deterring those who would need to claim benefits when they get here, further tightening of rules about student visas and skilled workers from outside the EU, and ‘clamping down’ on illegal immigration.
Overall the rhetoric is familiar – they’re controlling immigration to put me, my family and the British people first. They’re changing the culture of something for nothing. They’re clamping down on ‘so-called satellite campuses’, on ‘spurious’ legal challenges, and on appeals based on the ‘so-called right to family life’.
As with benefits, the assumption is that there is abuse of the system. I don’t doubt that there is, but, as with benefits, I would question whether the abuse is on a scale that could significantly affect net migration figures if it were to be prevented.
There’s a huge amount of information on all of these aspects – more than I can grasp and re-present here. I suspect this topic will merit more than one blog post. In particular, I’m putting the EU aspects to one side – for now – and focusing on the student visa system, close to my heart, as I work for a University which not only benefits from its overseas student fee income, but celebrates the contribution that those students make to its culture, and to the local economy.
Michael Heseltine has argued – and he has considerable support for this view – that international students should not in any case be included in the migration figures. But there seems little likelihood at present that this argument will be heard.
No one doubts that in the past there were dodgy ‘educational establishments’ set up primarily to milk overseas students of hefty tuition fees without providing them with the educational benefits that those fees should have ensured. But the safeguards put in place which mean that students have to be registered on proper courses at proper Universities, and pass language tests at appropriate levels in order to do so, surely mean that this is not an area where widespread abuse still goes on. The risks of an approach which appears to treat all overseas students as potential illegal immigrants are that, firstly, Universities have to devote increasing resources to policing student attendance and, more importantly, students who have paid very considerable sums to receive an education which will enable them to pursue a successful career will feel insulted by this treatment, and will discourage others from coming. We have already seen some effect of the negative message sent out by UK visa policies that students from overseas are not really welcome here.
The manifesto is exercised also by ‘so-called’ satellite campuses. It’s puzzling why these are described in this way – clearly they are satellites of universities based elsewhere in the UK, set up to attract not only foreign but also domestic students attracted to doing their studies in the capital rather than, say, Sunderland. There are pros and cons of these developments, from the perspective of the Universities concerned and their competitors. But it seems to be merely the fact that these campuses appeal to foreign students that causes them to be treated with such suspicion.
And then there’s the issue of ‘overstaying’. There used to be a post-study visa system that allowed international graduates from UK universities to remain in the UK for a year after graduation, and thus to gain some UK work experience before returning to their home country, or applying for a further visa category to remain in the UK for longer. That was shut down a couple of years ago. Now, once you have graduated, you have four months to leave, unless you can obtain a Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur visa (for ‘high-value’ migrants), a doctorate extension, or a work permit. I can see how people might make genuine mistakes about what the rules are – they change with such frequency, and it’s well known that if you ring for information on the same point more than once you can get a different answer every time. I’m less convinced that graduates with qualifications in medicine, engineering, business and other disciplines, who’ve had the funds to cover the fees for their studies, would prefer to eke out an existence in the shadow economy of the UK rather than to return home to use the skills they’ve gained. I’m not saying it’s impossible – but again, if the government is counting on ‘clamping down’ on these alleged abuses of the system in order to meet its targets, one fears that they will simply have to become more and more draconian, and thus penalise people who could have continued to make a contribution to the UK economy themselves, and could have been ambassadors for a UK education back home.
The next hurdle is the proposed review of the Highly Trusted Sponsor status for Universities. Back in 2014 concern was being expressed by the Overseas Student Service Centre about the effects of the tightening of these rules:
As part of its continuing “crackdown” on immigrants, and on international students in particular, the British Government has announced new, stricter, requirements for Highly Trusted Sponsor status for universities in the UK. Highly Trusted Sponsor status, as its name suggests, is the highest Home Office classification for universities in terms of perceived integrity and organisation. At present there is a rule – and one that many people might find rather curious – that Highly Trusted Sponsor universities have to somehow ensure that no more than 20% of students who apply to study there have their visa applications refused by UK Visas & Immigration. If the figure exceeds 20% then the university will lose its Highly Trusted Sponsor status. In November this year this figure will change to 10%, and the rule will become even more curious.
Those who have experience in the immigration business generally know that decision-making by the UKVI (and most particularly by Entry Clearance Officers in British diplomatic posts abroad) is a nebulous subject. Inside information informs us that these ECOs have to meet targets in terms of the number of applications they process per day. Even if we didn’t know this it would be tolerably obvious – a lot of decision-making is very poor and evidently rushed. On occasion ECOs do not even notice documents that are included in the application and on other occasions they do not read them sufficiently carefully.
On top of this ECOs can refuse student applications on grounds of “credibility” and “genuineness”, which are of course very difficult to measure, and – bearing in mind that there is no full right of appeal against student visa application refusals from abroad – such a refusal decision can be extremely difficult to overturn.
It seems likely that any further tightening of these rules will result in some Universities losing their HTS status. If they do, they lose very substantial amounts of income (income which in effect subsidises the cost of all courses), and the students themselves may lose their visas and their University places.
Who gains from any of this? The only possible beneficiary will be the Home Secretary who can claim – supposing these changes are implemented so rigorously that they do make a dent in the net migration numbers – that they have met their target. Everyone else loses.
These issues may not be the most heart-rending aspect of the immigration rules – I hope to cover the rules relating to non-EU spouses, for example, in another post, and to look at the ‘so-called’ right to a family life. But the targeting of international students shows particularly clearly the wrong-headedness of the current approach to reducing net migration. Arbitrary, ill thought out targets. A steadfast refusal to acknowledge the flaws in the targets. And the resultant cracking down, clamping down, toughening up, in all the wrong places.