Wednesday, 29 February 2012

What kind of migration game are we in?

At today's Universities UK Competing Globally debate, some familiar themes were aired around the importance of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater when reforming the student immigration system. 

These views are not only coming from the education sector itself: in recent days other prominent voices include the Wilson review of business-university collaboration, which has expressed concerns about the impact of restricting the flow of international research students; comments from John Cridland, Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, about the importance of supporting education exports, as one of the UK's few current commercial successes and Simon Walker, Director General of the Institute of Directors who also fears government visa changes are threatening this successful business.

What most agree is needed to create a rational debate around student visas, is a distinction between permanent and temporary categories of migrant.  The government has yet to be persuaded to use these categories in the way they are used in the US and Australia, and still insists that UN definitions force it to categorise students together with any other migrant coming to the UK for 12 months.  Yet, in today's statement of intent on the review on employment-related settlement, Tier 5 and overseas domestic workers, the government does state that it plans to "categorise all visas as either 'temporary' or 'permanent'." which, if applied to students, must recognise that their impact is different to those who come to settle, and opens the door to rational debate about whether the balance of their economic and social contributions to the UK are positive or negative.

The other key part of this jigsaw is how temporary migrants such as students affect the net migration figures (the mast to which the government has rather unfortunately nailed its colours).  The Migration Observatory have today issued figures on what they call the "net migration bounce": reduce incoming numbers of temporary migrants today, and somewhere down the line you reduce the number of outgoing temporary migrants.  It seems that attempts to reach the "tens of thousands" net immigration target are possibly not only misguided, but doomed.

In the complex picture of global student flows, it is perhaps also worth picking up on another recent article in which Philip Altbach disputes that brain drain is a thing of the past: the figures he quotes from the US show that it remains alive and well in some quarters of the world.  Perhaps that is inevitable in a world with free movement of capital and (even partially) of labour.  But does it do anything to address the global inequalities which are the driving force behind most migration?  It's an issue beyond the control of most individual universities - and indeed most individual governments.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep it in our frame of reference.  Attracting the best and brightest may be in the UK's short-term interests, but not at the expense of countries who have even greater need than us of their most highly skilled citizens.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Post-Study Work

An interesting little exchange last week between the Director-General of the Institute of Directors and our good friends at Migrationwatch on the merits of abolishing the Post-Study Work scheme and replacing with limited access to Tier 2.

The IoD said it would do untold damage to Britain's interests to summarily evict students with MBAs once their courses had finished and especially as so many of them came from BRIC countries - the UK's leading trading partners.

Migrationwatch robustly replied suggesting that if someone with an MBA could not get a graduate job on a salary of £20K, they were not the sort of person the UK economy needed anyway.

The sad truth however is that many of the 'brightest and the best' - a phrase which the government seems to like to use - do not do MBAs or other courses which shoot them straight into well-paid city jobs.  They do project management, engineering, computer studies, architecture, pharmacy, etc etc and could be real assets in companies across the country and in many regions where starting salaries of £20K are virtually unheard of.

As the April D-day approaches, we lament the likely loss of talent.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Perspectives on mobility

Within the UK, we're used to seeing international student mobility primarily as recruitment of international students to full-degree programmes, and comparing ourselves most frequently to the other main English-speaking destination countries.  So it's refreshing to look at the latest report from Academic Cooperation Association (ACA):  Mapping Mobility in the European Higher Area

 This reminds us that Europe hosts more international students than any other continent, and over the past decade it has increased its market share, despite growing competition, with more students coming from outside the region, as well as the large amount of intra-European mobility that takes place.  Of course, there are large differences between European countries.  Some, such as Cyprus send more students abroad than they host (a ratio of 1.38 to 1).  At the end of the scale, the UK sends very few abroad, and receives many (12 out for every 1000 in). 

One unintended consequence of the success of intra-European mobility is picked up in a recent New York Times article, which reports on how European governments are addressing the financial implications of educating imbalanced numbers of other EU nationals.  It is a question which has been debated many times in the UK, but can also be seen in recent calls by the Dutch education minister that Germany should contribute to the cost of educating its nationals, and in Austria, where attempts were made to limit numbers of incoming EU nationals to some courses.  As the NYT points out, the Scandinavian countries have a voluntary agreement in place to reimburse each other for part of the costs of cross-border students' education, and it argues that a similar system is in effect coming into effect between the home nations in the UK. 

There is no sign, however, that any such agreements will become more widespread, and the economic argument is not overwhelming.  Many countries, including the UK, have recognised in the past that the even when incoming students receive a subsidised education, the host country benefits from their spend on living and other costs, and often benefits from their skills and tax contributions when they stay on to work. 

Although I have long argued that there's a benefit to the Treasury if UK students study abroad, there's no sign that outward full degree mobility will become a government priority any time soon (and the ACA study shows that no countries focus on this in their mobility policies, although some at least enable it through portability of student funding).  At best, a slight increase may result from increased domestic tuition fees.  As an article in the US "Foreign Policy" magazine suggests, with cheaper fees and tuition at home, the temptation will be to "outsource your kid".