The decision to revoke London Met’s ability to teach international students is a curious one. Closing down bogus colleges and visa mills is one thing. Deporting three thousand students is quite another. What was the rationale for this? A UKBA spokesman told the Guardian about ‘serious and systemic failings’ that meant that ‘Allowing London Metropolitan University to continue to sponsor and teach international students was not an option.’ Universities minister David Willetts said that ‘It is important that genuine students who are affected through no fault of their own are offered prompt advice and help.’ Defending the UKBA, conservative writer Ed West points out: ‘Student migration is now the largest route for non-European migrants to take, and has been so since 2008’.
It appears that this is purely a numbers game. And I like Willetts’s emphasis on ‘genuine’ students. Again, people paying a visa mill is one thing. But are we now defining a ‘bogus’ student as someone who applies to a UK university with the intention of living in the UK, making use of his degree and contributing to society? I thought we all had to go into education with that kind of vocational motive in mind?
When I first moved to South Manchester the bars were full of American, European and Asian accents heard on the streets and ringing in the twilight of the early evening balcony at Trof Fallowfield. The city would be an emptier place without them. As West points out, London Met is a bad university, 118th out of 120th in the tables. But there’s nothing I can see that would stop the UKBA applying these restrictions to every university in the UK. Universities already have to recruit UKBA compliance officers. A lecturer told me recently that she regularly receives ‘warning emails to keep my registers up to date cause of UKBA.’ This has clearly been mainstreamed and HE professionals are now expected to help track down those the UKBA say are ‘illegal’.
And it was clear from the Commons debate on this that London Met is basically a pilot. Potential high flier Tory Amber Rudd got up and said: ‘Reducing immigration levels is important to my constituents, who welcomed the admission by the Leader of the Opposition earlier in the year that there had been uncontrolled immigration under the previous Government. May I urge the Minister, therefore, to reform all routes of entry into the UK, including the student visa route, in order to build on the reductions he has already achieved?’
We have a border agency that hectors universities that they should be doing the UKBA’s job for them, and is trying to turn Britain’s universities into a compliance arm of the UKBA. With the coalition’s obsessive numbers game it is inevitable that bright people from other countries will conclude that it’s not worth the hassle of trying to study here. I mean, it’s not like Britain’s the only country that has good universities. For all the rhetoric about preserving British culture, the UKBA pursues numbers and process at the expense of Britain’s cultural reputation. Private Eye’s Lunchtime O’Boulez column compiles numerous stories of travelling classical musicians hassled and messed around by border police, to the extent that the game just ain’t worth the candle. So we can deport a few lazy engineering students but not any of the almost 400 suspected war criminals currently living in this country. Doesn’t it help you sleep soundly in your bed that your borders are guarded by people with such investigative rigour and common sense?
We’re always being told that we ‘can’t talk about immigration.’ On Thursday there was another parliamentary debate. Guess which policy area. It was triggered by a Migration Watch e-petition that urged the government to ‘take all necessary steps to reduce immigration to a level that will stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level and, certainly, significantly below 70 million.’ This was picked up by Tory Nicholas Soames and tedious Merseyside Blue Labourite, Frank Field. The Commons passed this motion.
The anti-migration obsessives will froth and moan, but they can be strangely coy in places. They will highlight real or imagined problems, but maintain a reluctance to answer the basic question: ‘What would you do about it?’ The SNP’s Pete Wishart was one of the few dissenting voices in the chamber that day. He asked a very good question:
This nasty little motion mentions ‘all necessary steps’. Does he realise how authoritarian that sounds? The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex mentioned four steps, but what other ‘necessary steps’ would the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) propose?
I would add a few questions for Field, Soames, Migration Watch, the Daily Mail, Telegraph Blogs and all the others who invest so much emotion and energy in opposing immigration.
– When you say ‘all necessary steps’, what exactly do you mean by that? Could you explain what these steps are and how this would work in practice?
– Who would the ‘necessary steps’ apply to? Do you want to cut the numbers of refugees, economic migrants, students or family migrants? What is the selection criteria here?
– You go on about your love for the free market, yet you advocate protectionist policies that would prevent other people competing with your sons and daughters for jobs and university places. Could you explain the contradiction.
– Following on from that, if you close the doors to migrants, will you be able to find the young workers that we need to sustain an ageing population with subsidised pensions and social care? Do you think that autarky is a sustainable economic policy in a globalised world?
– You say that there are not just economic, but also cultural problems with immigration. For example, you quote an IPPR report that claims ‘It is no exaggeration to say that immigration under new Labour has changed the face of the country.’ How would you address this in practice? Would you want to deport people with ILR, who have been naturalised, second and third generation immigrants, people who came over on the Windrush? Would there be a kind of social engineering experiment to recreate Britain in the late 1950s? Just how far with this do you want to go?
– You are concerned about population growth and certainly we have problems with overcrowded housing and schools. It’s not clear that these are the fault of immigrants alone but never mind that. But have you considered that the population scares of the 1970s turned out to be completely unfounded and that the consequences of having a declining population are a little more difficult to deal with?
– You moan that you have been called a racist for talking about immigration, and you suffer from the ‘fear of saying something that would be called politically incorrect and thus being labelled as racist or anti-immigrant by the media.’ It’s okay, we are all friends here, no one’s accusing you of anything and we’ll take it for granted that you are not racist. But isn’t it true that the restrictions you propose will disproportionately affect people with different colour skin? Do you accept that some criticism of immigration is demonstrably racist and that all racist parties in this country are committed to stamping out immigration?
– Is there a lower level of immigration that you would be happy with?