Cameron’s student visa policy disastrous own goal

351177_UK-students“Stupid. Incoherent. Short-sighted. Cack-handed. Intrusive. Counter-productive.” One thesaurus is not enough to describe the folly of the British government’s policy towards foreign students.

Working in a British university, I see its dire effects every day. Kafkaesque, intrusive bureaucracy. Everyone treated as a suspect. A high-flying Singaporean civil servant turned down on the grounds of inadequate language skills (Singapore’s administration works in English). Daughters and sons unable to go home to visit their aged parents because the dysfunctional UK Border Agency hangs on to their passports for months. Talented, idealistic students packed off back to India or America the day after their courses end, though they are exactly the kind of creative yeast we need in this country’s dough.

And that’s not counting the ones who have been deterred from applying to study here in the first place. According to official Home Office figures, student visas from India were down 24% in the year to the end of September 2013, on top of a decline of over 50% during the preceding year. Yet the British government has made relations with India one of its top external priorities.

Why this folly? Because in January 2010 David Cameron offered a careless, populist election promise to reduce net migration “to the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands”. He made a rod for his own back. Net migration is those who enter minus those who leave, but the Home Office cannot manage the number of British people who choose to leave the country in a given year (of course, the government could make Britain such an unpleasant place that millions decide to pack up and leave. Mission accomplished). Moreover, this target lumps together all categories of migration: asylum, family reunification, EU and non-EU, for work and for study. The beginning of wisdom would be to distinguish between them, and especially to separate students from others.

Since I am critical of government policy, let me start by recognizing the problem. In some political theorist’s hypothetical universe it may be illiberal to control immigration, but in the real world, controlling immigration is a precondition for preserving a liberal society. Immigration is now among the top concerns of voters, in Britain as in most western democracies. (Witness the recent Swiss referendum vote to limit the number of EU citizens entering Switzerland) Fears are stoked to hysteria by irresponsible media and politicians, but the underlying concern should be taken seriously.

That being so, it is all the more incredible to find just how poor is the evidence on which these decisions are being made. The government is only now introducing the procedures and technology to count the numbers leaving Britain. Along the way the Home Office has lost track of hundreds of thousands of people, including many students or former students.

Only in 2012, did the International Passenger Survey (itself just a sample survey) start to ask those who are leaving whether they originally came here to study. Using the latest available figures – for the year to the end of June 2013 – Dr. Scott Blinder, a specialist at Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, calculates the difference between the number who arrived here to study and those departing who say that they originally came here to study at some 99,000. If that is even roughly right, then it is a huge chunk of the annual net migration figure, which for that period was 166,000 using the same survey source (and 182,000 on the official figure).

So if Cameron is to come anywhere near his “tens of thousands” goal by the next election, in May 2015, he must either organize a St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the foreign students or, as his own universities minister has quietly suggested, acknowledge that students are different. For policy purposes, student numbers would then be treated separately, although they should be counted as regular immigrants if and when they stay on to work here. In his book The British Dream, David Goodhart, an outspoken critic of past failings of British immigration policy, also suggests this.

The problem of bogus students is serious, but ultimately a red herring. Even if we eliminate all fraud on student visas, we will still have to decide, as a country, whether we want to take in, say, 100,000 or 300,000 wholly legitimate students a year.

So the student question must be addressed on its own merits, not thrown into a demagogic hotpot marked “immigration” (aka “bloody foreigners”). Obviously, hosting foreign students has a cost. Many do stay on, even now. And we have a lot of them. In 2008 Britain had the second largest cohort of foreign students of any OECD country. There are good reasons for this. We have the best universities in Europe, as well as some good further education institutions and language schools. We have historic worldwide connections. We speak English, the global language.

This brings a cost, but a larger benefit. In 2011/12 international students spent an estimated £10.2bn on tuition fees and living expenses. The gains in terms of human connections, ways of thinking, cultural affinities and international goodwill are incalculable. A study done last year for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that 84% of former students retained links with Britain and 90% had their perception of this country changed – for the better. Imagine if sometime Oxford students Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi and Manmohan Singh had all been thoroughly alienated by the kind of treatment that my foreign students are now routinely experiencing.

This is a vital part of Britain’s soft power, along with film, literature, music, sport and the BBC. With all respect to our soldiers, diplomats and bankers, I don’t think they do more for Britain’s standing in the world than our actors, broadcasters, writers and academics. JK Rowling is worth ten aircraft carriers. As we go deeper into the 21st century, this soft power is likely to hold up better than Britain’s dwindling military and economic power. Oh, and we also educate human beings, citizens of the world. Should we apologize for that to the prime minister?

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