For me, the main question at today’s Universities UK debate on immigration was the extent to which universities’ plans for growth in international recruitment – both student and staff – can be squared with government efforts to bring down net migration to below 100,000.
Glyn Williams, speaking for the Home Office, asked what the sector’s long term projections were, and called for discussion about what might be an acceptable level: Half a million? 1 million? 2 million?
Responding from the floor Shaun Curtis, Director of International Affairs at the University of Exeter put the question best: Does this mean government quotas for international students? On quality criteria? On what basis?
In response, Martin Ruhs of the Migration Observatory made the very sensible point that part of the background to public concern about immigration stems from a feeling that it is running out of control. Building public awareness of growth plans could help with that.
His presentation contained two killer facts.
Number one: because students are largely temporary migrants, any short term gain achieved by government in restricting numbers coming into the country will be offset in time by a decrease in migrants leaving the UK. He called this the net migration ‘bounce’. If the government wants a long-term reduction in net migration, they should focus on policies that restrict groups of people who are likely to stay.
Number two: international students are the category the public are least concerned about.
It’s clear though that universities are squarely in the ‘migration game’ as Glyn Williams put it. And, as Keith Vaz MP pointed out, it’s a game that is basically all about numbers.
Student migration is now the biggest visa category, and growing fast. The Home Office will increasingly be focusing on universities.
We must do much more than we have done in the past to produce evidence to convince ministers, and the public, of the economic case to give universities room to grow.
This morning’s debate on immigration will shortly be available on the Universities UK website.
Meanwhile, join the debate on twitter #HigherEdImmigration