Friday 7 September 2012

Immigration Needs a Lighter Touch

Immigration is a rather hot topic right now, not least because the former Immigration Minister, Damian Green, recently announced a significant fall in net migration and issued visas. This should be great news, as it helps Britain deal with a rapidly rising population while also stepping up to take on the challenge of unemployment with a powerful supply-side adjustment. In addition to this, there has been a 28% rise in Chinese tourist visas, meaning that more and more travel permits are being issued to those who are likely to spend a lot while they're here.

Nevertheless, there are significant problems with this announcement. For starters, in addition to there being a few questions that need answering as to how the data was actually collected, the value of the net figures themselves is debatable. The numbers may give us a fairly good idea of the totals involved, but they do little to explain the likely effect on the economy, which can be expected to depend on the level of the skills possessed by those coming and going, a ruse which has not escaped commentators on the left.

Indeed, it is also very questionable as to whether migration even has the negative impact on employment that might be predicted in the first place. A recent article by a prominent British think-tank believes that this is not the case in practise, finding no correlation at all between immigration and youth unemployment (the sector most likely to be affected by disturbances in the unskilled jobs market) in any of the areas it studies. Another recent paper also goes even further than this, suggesting that immigration actually has a positive impact on British wages, presumably due to new immigrants taking underpaid jobs and producing more than they earn in order to impress their new employers.

Net figures therefore cannot tell us the true story and are of dubious value, useful for little other than last-minute announcements to boost personal prospects before an impending cabinet reshuffle. In fact, their use has the potential to be quite harmful, encouraging ministers to focus on the simplest means of reducing inflows. This takes place in spite of powerlessness against immigration from the EU which, in the current European economic climate, almost certainly means large numbers of people from struggling economies such as Greece or Spain. The result of this, of course, is that economically beneficial migration is significantly reduced to make up for an inevitable rise in the less beneficial kind. This is little cause for applause at all.

An example of this effect plastered all over the news at the moment is the recent crackdown on the London Metropolitan University. While this has prompted a lot of hot air and misguided attempts at starting a class war, there is some validity to the argument that students appear to be inappropriately targeted in the ministerial struggle against immigration. While student visa abuse is certainly a legitimate problem, genuine students who arrive for a course of study at reputable institutions are very much temporary immigrants, granted no right to stay beyond the expiry of their permits. They therefore act as nothing other than a distortion to net immigration totals, and should probably be discarded from the calculation.

While not absolving the LMU of its various significant transgressions, the Border Agency's actions will be nonetheless very damaging to the many students involved, denying many of them access to their education, while basing the impeachment itself upon statistics which are very difficult for any university to measure up to, as noted in another article. In addition to this, the damage sustained by other universities and by the economy in general must also be taken to account. Spurred on by Britain's glowing reputation for excellence, foreign students provide tremendous benefits to our higher education through their patronage and the huge fees they are willing to pay, factors which are very susceptible to threats from falling international confidence.

Students therefore have a right to feel inappropriately targeted by efforts that disproportionately focus on areas of immigration that are easiest to control, rather than those that have the most negative impact on the economy, as The Economist noted recently. This is very unfortunate, as such activity also ignores the intangible advantages of student immigration, such as the significant benefits that foreign students bring to the British intellectual community. Governments not widely praised for their fostering of innovation are delighted to be able to send students to the UK, and are doubtless even more happy to bring their newly acquired skills back to the home economy after their inexplicable ejection by the UKBA. It is now almost impossible for non-EU students leaving university to remain within the country even if they want to, a fact which can have unexpected repercussions, such as unfairly threatening young people's relationships in an effort to discourage sham marriages (for once I can fully sympathise).

The Conservative Party long ago rightly turned its back on the widespread use of imposed top-down targets in central government policy. Rather than clinging to this relic of the past, the new Minister, Mark Harper, should be prepared to embrace the difficult challenges facing the economy rather than focussing on deceptive empty statistics. Research has suggested that poor levels of skill, poor education and poor quality work experience are major contributing factors to youth unemployment, with immigration being a comparative irrelevance. It has been shown that the British workforce is increasingly failing to match its skills with the qualities employers are looking for, as I mentioned in a recent post. The last thing we should be doing right now is jettisoning those who are in the best position to help our struggling economy back to their countries of origin.

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