‘Double game’ on migration can’t last

Last weekend the UK Home Secretary Theresa May wrote an article in The Sunday Times in which she proposed that European Union free movement should only apply to people who had already secured a job.

She also stated that "rigorous control" of the UK's student migration system had helped reduce the number of further education visa applications, but that long-term immigration for study had risen.

She said the numbers showed that “too many students are not here temporarily" and added that the government had to "break the link between short-term study and permanent settlement" in the UK.

Migration has spooked the UK government. There is widespread opposition to migration outside London, and this particular government is an uneasy alliance of cosmopolitan business in the City of London with old-fashioned patriotism and parochialism. Migration splits its support base.

The issue has become especially unmanageable because it has become joined to three other separate and highly emotional problems: labour market competition in a relatively stagnant economy, refugees fleeing Syria and Africa and the threat of terrorist attack inside the UK.

The government has become locked into a nominally anti-migration position because it cannot be seen to be soft on British jobs, supportive of an open door to refugees or soft on terror.

The dilemma for the government is impossible. Without curbing economic migration dramatically, it simply has no way of getting numbers down from 330,000 to ’tens of thousands’, as pledged. But it cannot limit numbers sufficiently to please the Tory branches and the UK Independence Party, UKIP, while at the same time managing a modern capitalist economy. Business needs migrant labour and the UK needs to remain open to foreign talent in a globalised world.

A massive cut to immigration by two-thirds or more, a target of ‘tens of thousands’, is a fantasy, and always has been. But politically, the government has to talk tough even if it has no intention of implementing that promise.

So far the Prime Minister has avoided the kind of major changes to migration policy that would hurt business. 'Speak loudly and carry a small stick’ is the approach.

Theresa May is wheeled out to do the tough talking when it is needed, such as when the latest record increase in numbers is announced.

The next phase

This double game cannot be pursued forever – sooner or later the government will have to do more; it will have to really cut net migration numbers. In this context Theresa May’s statement is also preparation for that next and nastier phase of the migration debate.

Her statement suggests that it is the skilled labour component of the intake that is likely to be the site for actual cuts in numbers.

Here the government has a specific problem. Despite the increased restrictions on postgraduate work visas there are still many international student graduates able to secure adequately paid skilled work after graduation and thereby put themselves on a migration track. And there is a very large number of international students in the UK.

Harder to work

So Theresa May is now promising to "break the link between short-term study and permanent settlement" in the UK. Presumably this would be done by making it harder for graduate international students to work in the UK, possibly by abolishing graduate work visas altogether, so that graduates could only secure the right to work after leaving the country.

This would substantially reduce migration through the international student route and deliver an overall cut in net migration numbers in two ways.

First, it would reduce permanent migration by cutting down the number of graduate international students who stay in UK.

Second, and more importantly perhaps, in terms of numbers and being seen to do something, it would deter many student applicants and would generate an overall fall in the number of students admitted on temporary student visas. Student visas are part of the net migration statistics.

This might please UKIP and the Tory backbench and deliver a short-term poll bounce. But it would generate two medium term problems for the government, which would become increasingly obvious in the lead-up to the next election: (1) business will become increasingly unhappy, and (2) higher education revenues will fall sharply.

A cut to international student numbers of say 50% would be a lasting setback to the education export industry, and even a cut of 20% would create a fiscal hole of several billion pounds. International students have been essential to making austerity work in education. Without them, the money has to come from somewhere else.

UK government policy cancels itself out.

Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, and will be director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education (commencing on 12 November 2015). He is also joint editor-in-chief, Higher Education.