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.

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