Foreign graduates and a rare triumph for sensible immigration policy 

Theresa May’s draconian visa curbs have been reversed, not a moment too soon

September 11, 2019
Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

There’s stiff competition. But while it hasn’t disrupted as many lives as her policies which prevented Britons marrying foreigners, nor was it as blatantly unjust as the Windrush scandal, Theresa May’s closure of the Post-Study Work Route—which allowed students from outside the EU to stay on in the UK for up to two years—was probably the single most economically damaging immigration policy of the Cameron government. Both common sense, as well as every credible empirical analysis that I can think of, suggests that migrants who are younger, better educated, speak English, and have some knowledge and experience of the UK are, on average, likely to have a positive economic and fiscal impact. People who’ve just finished their studies here tick all these boxes.

May’s decision was ostensibly based on some (fairly ropy) Home Office data, as well as anecdotal evidence that some of those staying on were working in low-skilled occupations. But the primary reason—as the government said at the time—was simply to reduce numbers. This led to the bizarre spectacle of ministers claiming that making the UK less attractive to foreign students—and the corresponding fall in export earnings—was a policy success. More recently, analysis by the Migration Advisory Committee does suggest that a significant proportion of non-EU students who stay on earn less than you might expect. As they say, without a proper evaluation it’s difficult to know what’s going on here. But even to the extent this is the case, it’s not clear that having a relatively small number of young people working in low-paid jobs has any obvious major downsides—they can’t claim benefits and are unlikely to place much of a burden on public services. And those who don’t get a job at all will probably just go home. We have yet to see the detail of how the new scheme will work, but it would be churlish not to welcome today’s announcement that the government has reversed course and restored the Post-Study Work Route. Unsurprisingly, the higher education sector is overjoyed—although this perhaps reflects more our own narrow sectoral interests, since it will make the UK “offer” to potential foreign students more competitive, more than the wider benefits. Not that there anything wrong with reversing a policy that has eroded the market share of UK universities in a growing, and high-value, global market.

More broadly, though, what does this tell us about the direction of immigration policy under Boris Johnson? Earlier this summer, I wrote that the combination of May’s departure and the notable positive shift in public opinion offered a chance for a “reset moment.” This certainly represents the first and welcome step in that direction. Understandably, the government has chosen to start with the easiest possible move, politically. Most of those who benefit from this change will be from outside the EU, and many will be from India and China. This may be unpopular with the likes of Migration Watch, and a few academics like Professors Eric Kaufmann and Paul Collier who think immigration policy should be driven by the need to preserve Britain’s “indigenous” identityBut, as Sunder Katwala of British Future has argued, the majority of the British public has relatively liberal attitudes to skilled and student migration. Cabinet ministers are queuing up on Twitter to welcome the shift—with Sajid Javid describing the policy he supported for seven years as “silly”—suggesting in this area, at least, they don’t see relaxing immigration controls as a vote-loser. The real test, then, will be whether this is carried through into other areas. The Immigration White Paper published last December suggested that, after Brexit, a salary threshold of £30,000 would apply to most skilled migrants, from inside or outside the EU. My analysis showed that would lead to a significant fall in immigration, skilled and unskilled, with negative economic consequences; and business has pushed back hard against the government. That argument—like much else—has been put on hold by the Brexit mess. And outside the purely economic sphere, what has happened to Johnson’s promise to consider a regularisation scheme for long-term undocumented migrants? Meanwhile, the everyday injustices of the system—such as the denial of citizenship to young people who, by any measure, are entirely British—continues. The last decade has been difficult for those of us who have argued—as I do in my new book, What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Immigration?—for the benefits, both economic and social, of a relatively liberal approach to immigration. Today’s announcement suggests the pendulum is swinging back. That’s good news, but we’ve a long way to go.