A very interesting and productive meeting at ippr this morning. Entitled Policy Impact and Public Debate: Learning lessons from the migration cap and student visa reforms, the roundtable included campaigners, thinkers, education agencies and legal minds.
Reviewing the recent battles with the Home Office and the anti-immigration camp, we drew out some important points. It may be tempting for progressives to lick their wounds after today’s introduction of the immigration cap. Bearing in mind that the cap for 2011/12 will be tightened yet further each year as the Government strives to reach it’s target of ‘tens of thousands, not hundreds’ by the end of its parliamentary term. Public opinion is widely considered to lie firmly with the Government on immigration controls.
The debate over the cap was held, in the main, at cross purposes. The Coalition Government presenting ideological and emotive arguments. This echoed public opinion, whilst our ‘side’ concentrated on policy impacts and economic arguments. One participant pointed out that this tactic can backfire, people may think “if the number of immigrants has that much impact on our economy, there must be far too many.” Looking at the way government wins policy arguments, a public concern is picked up on, a myth or isolated examples of abuse are magnified and a policy is sold on the back of abuse or misuse of public funds, obviously effecting far more than the few offenders.
This tactic was used in the student visa reform debate. Theresa May’s parliamentary statement introducing the student visa reforms rounded on the spectre of bogus colleges and abuses of the system by those coming here to work. While this happens, there are two important points to make:
- The incidence of such abuses has been considerably reduced over recent years, and the laws that are implementing this reduction are still very much available to the home Office. There are very few cases of institutions being prosecuted for such abuses at present.
- The vast majority of private college, further education colleges and universities will suffer under the pretence of dealing with a very small number of bad apples.
The world of business has been embroiled in the debate as its immediate interests in choosing who to employ and where have been severely curtailed by the immigration cap. Despite the strength of their voice in times of economic hardship, the level and the effects of the cap have taken draconian dimensions. Persuading the Government of the importance of business freedom led to a loosening of Tier 2 (intra-company transfers) whilst also severely restricting Tier one. The abolition of the Post Study Work visa for new entrants was either not foreseen or challenged by business and has taken a huge hit accordingly.
The impacts of the student visa restrictions have been examined elsewhere in this blog. The demise of scores of private colleges, targeted instead of universities in the restrictions is now predicted by insiders in the industry. As constant feeders of suitable students to UK Universities, this will have a more damaging effect throughout the education sector, and the message received in many countries has been that the UK is no longer a welcoming place for international students.
The meeting was a valuable reassessment of the first battles in a long war against this and (if current trends are to be considered) successive governments. The turn to using almost exclusively economic arguments has been to the detriment of the pro-immigration camp.
A human rights based approach
Whilst it is important to demonstrate the economic contradictions of the Government’s policies, we need to use a broader selection of tools and arguments. A human rights-based approach to the debate and a recognition of the implications of global justice in policy making is required. We need to take a step away from the ideas that tend towards seeing immigrants as ‘good’ beneficial and economically viable ones as opposed to ‘bad’ family members, low paid migrants and people escaping the harsh economic realities of their home countries.
We need to tackle not just the policies and Immigration Rules set out by the Government, but need to start turning public opinion. Considering the low base we are starting from, at least we can take heart from the luxury of choosing where we start that struggle. Given the political awareness and activity witnessed around various debates in Universities of late, that would be a good place to start.