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Julian Brazier MP: Student immigration has its advantages — but it must be controlled

Julian BrazierJulian Brazier is Conservative MP for Canterbury.

During the Parliamentary summer term, there was a campaign by Universities UK which called for the easing of visa terms for applicants to British universities and for students to be excluded from the government’s immigration targets. These proposals met with considerable support both from key figures in industry and a number of Conservative backbenchers. There were also some signals that ministers within the Business department were sympathetic. Since then, however, Home Office ministers have made their opposition clear and the Home Office has just revoked the licence of one university, London Metropolitan, to sponsor visas from overseas students.

Bringing young people from overseas into our university system certainly has its advantages. For instance, their fees — typically higher than those of domestic students — are a crucial source of revenue for universities and colleges, particularly when they are threatened with a drop in domestic applications thanks to the tuition fees hike. And there are benefits to the wider economy too, both from those overseas students who return to their home countries, perhaps to reach the top in their country’s political system or business, taking with them a positive view of the UK and a network of contacts here; and from the “brightest and the best” students who decide to remain over here.

But this is not the whole story. Britain is now caught in a triangle in which three contrasting objectives — those of student recruitment, immigration control and human rights — are in tension. All three cannot be met in full; compromises will have to be made.

The overriding statistic which sets the context is that student inflow now accounts for three fifths of all non-EU immigration. By 2010, the number of student visas issued had risen to 288,000, swelling to over 320,000 once their dependents are taken into account. Yet, controlling immigration means controlling non-EU immigration for three major reasons. First, it has historically been around two-thirds of the total. Second, we cannot legally restrict EU inflow (other than from future new members). Thirdly, anyway, EU arrivals are far more likely to depart again as part of a process of normal exchange than those from poor Third World countries, who account for much of the non-EU total.

Does this matter? We think of students coming to the UK for a period of three years or so to do a course, but, according to a Home Office report published in September 2010 more than a fifth of the 186,000 granted student visas in 2004, were believed to be still here after five years. As this was a purely paper exercise, it took no account of any staying on illegally. Some had brought dependents too. More recently, a National Audit Office report found that the UK Border Agency had implemented Tier 4 (the new student visa regime) “with flaws which were predictable and could have been avoided” and that the Agency had not dealt efficiently and effectively with over-stayers and students in breach of the rules. It estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 people entered the UK in the first year of Tier 4 (2009/10) with the intention of working rather than studying.

How many are staying illegally is hard to estimate. What we do know, is that between February 2010 and October 2011 a staggering 62,000 notifications were sent by sponsoring colleges to the UK Border Agency, alerting them to the fact that students were not attending college. This, incidentally, gives the lie to the idea that the problem is confined to bogus colleges operating on the fringes of the Law. And it suggests that there can be no meaningful measure of progress (or otherwise) on immigration control if students are excluded from the targets.

The Home Office has taken important steps to tighten things up. For example, when it was discovered that thousands of Pakistani student visa applicants could not speak English, despite claiming they had good English skills, it piloted a new system. Applicants are now required to have a face-to-face interview with an immigration official before a visa is granted. This scheme has raised the rejection rate from 20% to 43%, and the pilot programme has been extended to 14 other countries. The government has also tightened the law elsewhere, saying that non-EU graduates without an immediate job offer for well-paid work should go home. These reforms are welcome, and should be taken further, but there is a limit to what can be achieved. In a country where there are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in circulation, how is UKBA to find students who simply disappear – whether on arrival or later?

Universities UK, in their submissions, stress the liberal arrangements in the US, Canada and Australia, who compete with us for English-speaking students. There is however one overwhelming difference between their situation and ours – they have a tiny fraction of our population density (ranging from 15% in the US to under 1% in Australia), in fact Australia and Canada have traditionally wanted to grow their population, while population growth is one of the greatest threats to quality of life in the UK, with its impact on housing shortages, infrastructure overloading and extreme tensions on planning.

Furthermore, if for any reason the state wants to deport someone breaking the rules, the courts in the US and Australia, are much more supportive of enforcing local immigration law than UK judges working with the Human Rights Act.

This is the wider point that hovers over this debate: so long as our courts remain dominated by Human Rights legislation, the UKBA has to work on the assumption that anyone coming to this country from a poor Third World country may choose to stay and become difficult to deport. This point profoundly affects several other areas of immigration control, to the exasperation of businesses and families seeking visitor visas alike. Sadly, as long as the British courts are dominated by Human Rights Law, a choice has to be made between allowing in more students from poorer countries and restoring effective immigration controls to curb population growth. Reform of human rights law is long overdue so that a better balance can be struck between competing priorities.


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