Time to lambast the economic stupidity of Tory posturing on immigration


The main headline in today’s Sunday Times (£) is something of a milestone. (Helpfully, the Murdoch empire make most of the story available on Sky News without a paywall).

We’ve seen the bidding war on immigration between UKIP and the Tories.

But Theresa May is now taking it to a new level. It’s one thing talking about restricting the benefit rights of EU migrants. But it is another to declare, as May does through the Sunday Times headline: “I’ll kick out foreign graduates”.

Just think that one through.

sunday timesOur schools, colleges and universities are revered around the world. Parents pay a fortune to send their children from the opposite side of the globe to educational establishments in the UK. We then give them the benefit of a fine education and a grounding in our culture and language. It is quite right that such graduates can currently move reasonably seamlessly to a work permit. We have areas of our economy where we desperately need brain power. The NHS springs to mind. But there are other areas such as science-based industries, telecommunications and IT. We can always do with the brightest and best helping our industry and public services.

But what does May want to do? She wants to kick out those brightest and best. Kick them out of the country and then make them grovel to come back in. In many cases they won’t bother, and we would have lost an excellent source of brains. And this, we’re told, is in order to meet the Tories’ crazy net migration target.

It’s economic madness. If we went down that road, as a country, we would be cutting our nose off to spite our face.

But there is an interesting irony in this move by Theresa May, said to be ‘burnishing’ her credentials as a future Tory leader. Most likely, the immediate timing of this move was motivated by yesterday’s headline. The Commons Home Affairs select committee have found that May has presided over chaos in the immigration system, with just short of 400,000 unresolved immigration cases in existence.

So, Theresa May has basically allowed anyone to walk into the country and stay here, via administrative chaos, and reacts by cutting off a vital supply of brainpower for our economy.

This is the most remarkable evidence so far of the economic insanity of the competition between UKIP and the Tories.

They’re fighting over the shroud of Enoch Powell at the risk of consigning the UK to the rank of economic also-ran.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • There used to be a time when Britain wanted overseas students partly because they were more likely to look favourably on Britain later in their careers. The Tories seem to want to change all that. Talk about making friends and influencing people!!!

  • You are absolutely correct. But the coalition have also created a system where it is difficult to hire non-EU staff as visas are limited and expensive, many foreign workers have to register with the local police station (!), migrants who marry UK citizens are not automoatically eligible to stay, but their spouse must be earning a certain amount of money, and so on.

    These proposals are an utter disgrace, but they are simply a continuation of current immigration policy which your party voted for.

  • Is this a new formulation: “continuation of X which your party voted for”? In other words we didn’t vote for it but you want to pretend we did?

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Dec '14 - 11:39am

    ‘We can always do with the brightest and best helping our industry and public services.’

    But isn’t that the problem – that it really isn’t as simple as that any more. This country is not short of graduates. Graduates willing and able to work at rock-bottom rates perhaps. Yes, of course there will be shortages – there are global shortages in certain skills and the UK has to compete for those. Just it seems to me to be a serious leap to go from that to saying that any graduate is automatically a niche specialist in a shortage area. This article does not seem to address that there is serious nuance in the arguments here. See http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/does-the-uk-really-need-more-engineers/2011723.article for an interesting discussion.

    By all means I think that there should be a relatively pain free route for those with a genuine niche skill-set. But as a political movement it would be unwise to ignore both nuance and the considerable graduate unemployment that there is in subjects that are far from, ‘soft.’

    The public at large aren’t dumb. They know that there is some unwise thinking in CON/UKIP circles. Just the appropriate antidote to that thinking is not to obliterate nuance. The article did feel a bit blasé.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Dec '14 - 11:41am

    g – When I go to my wife’s country I am obliged by law in that country to register at the local police station. There is nothing offensive about it and I believe it is normal in many countries.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Dec '14 - 12:34pm

    Can some one ask Teresa May how many universities does she want to close by banning overseas students .
    Will Oxford ,Cambridge,or the LSE be on that list ?

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '14 - 1:02pm

    Something must be wrong here because I fundamentally agree with Theresa May and Lib Dems are sounding like they want to outsource part of the UK’s immigration policy to universities. I thought it was standard that graduates are made to leave. If I was studying elsewhere I wouldn’t expect a passport just because I studied there.

    If Lib Dems disagree then they need to be able to make a better argument than “all graduates are good for the economy”.


  • LJP You are right that the country does not have a shortage of graduates. I have seen recent graduates I know stacking shelves at ASDA because they can not get any other job. But the article at your link at the Times HE is right only in parts. Perhaps what industry is saying is that there is a shortage of graduates with the skills they want ? A situation made worse by the reduction in what were called “sandwich degrees” with the demise of the Polytechnics.

    It has puzzled me why access to medical courses in the UK is so restricted. There seem to have been shortages for decades.

    Theresa May kicking out graduates with skills which are needed would be damaging. But should an overseas graduate be automatically allowed to take an unskilled job ?

  • In all this posturing on all sides, I think what is being missed is what the real policy probably is and should be, namely: there is no automatic right for foreign national graduates to remain in this country on finishing their studies. This doesn’t mean that graduates can’t apply for post-grad studies and work here, only they have to re-apply and probably have to exit the country for a while; a practise I’ve come a cross in several countries.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Dec '14 - 3:50pm

    Hugh – There absolutely is no shortage of medical skills world wide and medical schools in the UK are oversubscribed by a wide margin. The basic problem is that whilst there is no shortage of applicants for, say, baby heart units in London, the picture for, say the geriatrics ward at 3am on Sunday morning in the less nice parts of the country is rather different. As you say this isn’t anything new and the reason it’s gone on for so long is no one seems to know how to handle the situation. I gather similar issues come up in other countries.

    With regard to other graduates like engineers, it begs the question rather of why these business can’t pay for the training themselves if their needs are so specific.

    Neil Sandison – I suggest a reading of this, in particular page 9. http://www.hefce.ac.uk/media/hefce/content/pubs/2014/201402/HEFCE2014_02.pdf

    Overseas feed make up a chunky part of income, but most institutions would manage a drop. The idea that Oxford, Cambridge or LSE would struggle is just not credible. I suspect (and that’s all it is) that the figures probably are skewed by some departments within institutions, most obviously business schools. However the idea that all our universities, at least in England, are, ‘reliant,’ on this income source is internet mythology.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Dec '14 - 4:06pm

    Hugh – Just one other thought on this. I have no wish to reopen the fees can of worms here.

    It is, I think, however legitimate to note that the current system rests on the notion of there being a significant, ‘graduate premium.’ To my mind the one thing that can save the current loan system is a sharp increase in graduate incomes. I think that the maintenance of the loan system and the relationship of immigration and incomes is therefore a reasonable concern in this debate.

  • Joe Otton

    Is this a new formulation: “continuation of X which your party voted for”? In other words we didn’t vote for it but you want to pretend we did?

    You voted for much tighter immigration restrictions than Labour introduced. So yeah, you get the blame. We know the Tories are often stupidly anti-immigration, but your party, pre 2010, favoured it. You sold out, now May gets away with proposing this.

  • Good universities have always been international. Non-EU students contribute at least £7bn to our balance of payments. Unemployment is coming down rapidly and skills shortages are starting to emerge again. If May has ambitions to reduce non-EU migration to this country, rather than just be the next Tory leader, she could start by putting her own house in order and properly screen citizenship applications rather than endeavouring to outsource immigration controls to the universities.

  • Good article – and yes this is the perfect opportunity to take the Tories to task at the lowest risk of looking “soft” on immigration.

  • Charles Rothwell 22nd Dec '14 - 8:26am

    Ever since Thatcher and her ‘break-through’ in recruiting C1 and (in particular) C2 voters away from Labour, the Tories have obviously had huge problems in appearing as “the party of business” whilst the latter demographic groups have been hit sideways by globalisation (and Tory support amongst whom is now haemorrhaging to the Kippers and their bright promise of a Better Yesterday). The wrangling between the Camerons, Osbornes, Clarkes etc who know the Tories are going absolutely nowhere without the support of organisations like the CBI etc (whose views on recruiting non-UK graduates are crystal clear) and the Mays, “eastern coastal constituency Tories” will carry on and on until the issue of Europe is ‘resolved’ (which, like the Corn Laws and Imperial Preference (which similarly ripped them apart), will take a generation (and will most certainly not be ‘resolved’ for good by a referendum. Scotland has proven fully how little these pseudo-democratic instruments actually ‘solve’ anything but,as with Wilson in 1975 and Cameron in 2014, are virtually almost always more about skating over/attempting to patch up internal party divisions).

  • Bill Le Breton 22nd Dec '14 - 9:27am

    Agree with Charles about the lessons from the Corn Laws and Imperial Preference . But that may cause some problems for Radical Liberalism when the split takes place. I looked at this in Liberator a few months ago.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Dec '14 - 1:04pm


    “It has puzzled me why access to medical courses in the UK is so restricted. There seem to have been shortages for decades.”

    There is no puzzle. The British Medical Association, for a long time the most powerful trades union in the UK, has always insisted on there being a gross under-provision of UK medical graduate courses. This ensures that virtually no UK doctor, however useless and unsuited to deal with patients, gets unemployed: the extra vacancies are topped-up with foreigners.

  • UKIP’s intervention in British electoral politics has changed the way this debate is addressed, and not for the better.

    As the global economy integrates and managing international migration flows have become the topic of concern, Farage and co have twisted the subject by concentrating on inward flows to the exclusion of outward flows.

    Throughout the post-war period Britain suffered from a ‘Brain drain’ which harmed our economy. We’ve made so much progress on opening up that people at the bottom now see themselves falling further behind and would rather drag the country backwards than raise their own game.

  • To be honest, I kind of agree with May . Students are here to study not to be given a right to citizenship or get jobs. If they want to migrate or get work permits then there are proper channels. No one is being booted out. They are simply being asked to move on after their course has finished.

  • Graham Evans 22nd Dec '14 - 7:52pm

    I have not seen any statistics on the subject, but I would surmise that the main difference between overseas graduates who pay much higher fees than English university students is that most of them are doing courses which are likely to lead to a job directly related to their course of study, whereas most British students are not. This inevitably means that proportionately overseas graduates will be more attractive to employers than British graduates. Moreover, most vocationally orientated courses actually require further practical experience after graduation before the graduate can consider him/herself properly qualified, particularly bearing in mind that the British 3-year degree course is among the shortest in the world.

  • @ Tony “The British Medical Association, for a long time the most powerful trades union in the UK, has always insisted on there being a gross under-provision of UK medical graduate courses. ” My question was is part rhetorical. I think you are right.
    A similar process existed in the Law until the “new universities” came along – but now you need the degree + know someone, if you are to get on in the profession.
    @ LJP “With regard to other graduates like engineers, it begs the question rather of why these business can’t pay for the training themselves if their needs are so specific. ” In the 1970s this was indeed how it worked. I signed up for a five year apprenticeship and was paid monthly, had training in all term breaks (nine terms over four years) took the job they offered at the end and stayed with them for over 10 years. At that time around 20% of engineering students did this, with probably 90% on my course on this system. There are fewer opportunities now and less than 10% of student are able to do it. The four years of fees under the loan system makes this type of course off putting for the students. A different structure is needed. But why bother – all degrees are the same aren’t they ? Maybe if you study Politics & Economics at Oxbridge you think they are, and the only problem is how to stuff 50% through the system ?

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Dec '14 - 12:14am

    Hugh – As you say, given the present fee arrangements an extended course is pretty unattractive now (even with a paid year), that applies across all disciplines. It still doesn’t answer the question of WHY the old systems declined. It is what it is and engineering now has six-month graduate unemployment rates that point to a problem somewhere in the system. No amount of cheap shots at PPE changes that.

    What that problem is, and what we do about it is quite another question. And whether that something involves protection from overseas competition seems to me to be a legitimate question. Were you competing with large numbers of foreign graduates in the 1970s?

    But I don’t think it is good enough any longer just to throw more into the system and hope for the best, which is what the article appears to propose.

    Incidentally you are rather misquoting the 50% target there. There never was a target of 50% school-leavers getting a degree. A lot of people on the internet and in the media said there was, but it was rather more subtle and actually quite sensible policy – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1789500.stm.

    Graham Evans – Stats are at http://www.ukcisa.org.uk/Info-for-universities-colleges–schools/Policy-research–statistics/Research–statistics/International-students-in-UK-HE/#International-student-numbers-by-subject-area-2011-12.

    I’d add some health warnings though. This will include a pretty big number of exchange and short-term students (though that probably varies from subject to subject). There is a skew to postgraduate and I would guess that is most notable in business schools. Without knowing more about fee status a and who pays (parent, burger-flipping job, private bank loan etc) it’s hard to make decent comparisons. Certainly I’d be guarded about making sweeping statements like the one in your post.

  • Have people actually read what May is doing? And, what the Law relating to International Students (excluding EU students) was?

    People commenting on here seem to be acting under some strange misconception that International Students had an automatic right to settle here, but May is taking this away from them! This is simply not the case – and never has been.

    The Law in relation to undergraduate International students was that they would be granted a visa for the duration of their course (normally 3 to 4 years), after which they would have a short grace period (normally a few months) to go to their graduation and – if they wished – looked for a job. If they were looking for a job, they would have no extra rights when applying for a working visa than anyone else. This meant that: they had to meet the same requirements; the job had to meet the same requirements (i.e. could not be done by native worker (or in an area of need), registered employer and with pay over a certain level); and, the process for applying was the same (just done from within the UK).

    May is proposing to get rid of this grace period, so students would be required to leave days after their course ended. There is no mention of how they will deal with their graduation, but one assumes May has not thought that hard about this policy.

    Prior to this Government changing it, the policy was slightly nicer to Post-graduation students, if they had a Masters or PHD from an institution in the UK. They, too, would get the short grace period of several months, but could also apply for a ‘two year’ post-study visa, under which they could both look for and undertake work. Once the two years had elapsed, once again, these International graduates had no extra visa rights, and so, should they have wished to continue working here, they would once again need to apply for the same Work Visa as everyone else, and once again, they would not have any extra rights.

    However, even if this were some right to maintain forever, or any unjustified policy, it is outside of the remit of this debate because this Government scraped it in 2011.

    The position for Post-graduates with a Masters or PHD now is the same as the position for undergraduates. Upon completion of their course they have a short grace period, whereby they can remain in the UK doing whatever they wish, including looking for work. (Note, most do not bother looking for work as do not think they will get a job anyway, and instead use this period to have a long and very expensive holiday in the UK (great they are further screwing our tourism industry)). As such, the only advantage they now have when applying for a work visa is that they post-graduate qualifications can be taken into account when assessing whether a native could do the job – so the slightest of advantages.

    May wishes to remove this grace period, so these students cannot be here to graduate (supposedly needing to apply for another visa and having to come back to attend), have a holiday, waste money in our economy and look for work they probably will not get due to our visa laws being so exclusive.

    This policy has not got anything to do with stopping ‘students working here post-study’ according to May. She claims it is to stop that massive (well, massive in the sense of being very very very very very very small) problem of students overstaying. Now, even if this policy did somehow tackle this problem (because if a student is going to overstay, then they will overstay whether they have a grace period, or not – if anything, students having less time is likely to increase the number of overstays), it would still be unjustified because it a blanket policy punishing everyone for the actions of a very limited number.

  • Andrew Colman 23rd Dec '14 - 11:48am

    Overseas students are “customers” of one of Britains best industries, Academic excellence.

    Restricting overseas students is akin to not wanting to sell our cars to Germany because of war memories.

    May and here right wing /UKIP friends are sacrificing our economic future for their xenophobic and racist instincts

    If overseas students stop coming , our universities will loose valuable sources of income and reseatch will dry up. We will stop being world leaders in many areas of science and technology and will drift to third world status. Economic decline will follow (as a strong economy in the 21st requires world class science and technology). The wealthy xenophobes and racists of UKIP etc may be okay with money in the bank, they will hear more English spoken and see fewer coloured faces, but for most of us it will be a disaster.

  • When fellow Tory David Willetts writes in The Times attacking these proposals as mean spirited they must be wrong! He also notes that the Indian Press have already got hold of this and points out that countries such as Australia (hardly noted for a liberal immigration policy) see the economic value if international graduates and already allow a longer grace period. The proposals reflect the impossibility of implementing Tory immigration targets and that this one group is an easy target (but clearly the wrong target)

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