The Sunday Times

September 2nd, 2012

Stop huffing – we all called for this crackdown on immigration

Trying to believe two impossible things before breakfast is supposedly a religious discipline, absurd but unimportant. When it comes to public policy, trying to believe two mutually exclusive things at once can be dangerous: it makes government largely impossible.

In this country the great majority of citizens, nearly 80% according to some research, believe that net immigration should be reduced to tens of thousands a year from a peak in 2010 of 252,000.

The government has promised to do this within the present parliament, with little apparent chance of success but with solid public support. But many members of this same public expressed outrage last week when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) tried to implement the policy by disciplining London Metropolitan University for failing to check up on its foreign students.

This is incoherent. It is a fact that one way would-be immigrants from outside the EU try to get into Britain illegally is through the bogus college and or the bogus student route. There are plenty of bona fide students arriving in this country too, who also want to better their lot, and they should be welcome for many reasons: not least because they bring in money to struggling universities and to the economy generally. However, the number of non-EU students coming here to study is vast. In 2011 more than 320,000 student visas were issued to non-EU students. Altogether 500,000 students and short-term student visitors from outside the EU arrived in Britain. (EU students don’t need visas and can come here at any time for any reason.)

Among all these hundreds of thousands of non-EU students, there are some whose prime purpose is not to study but to settle here. Some may be entitled to bring in spouses and family members under the UK’s generous family reunion rules. They will also be entitled to use public services for the rest of their lives.

It is anybody’s guess how many such students there might be, but a good indicator is that the UKBA has already withdrawn the licences of 500 colleges of further education. These outfits failed to ensure that their non-EU students were entitled to be here, attended their courses or even spoke English.

Some of these colleges were deliberately selling a screen for illegal immigrants. Everyone has heard of them — dodgy rooms above a chip shop with no visible students and no exams. There are agencies in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa touting for clients for such operations.

Other colleges badly in need of overseas student fees are prepared to turn a blind eye to whether the golden goose was a bird of passage or had arrived to stay. Even so, London Metropolitan is the first university to have its licence to sponsor foreign students revoked.

One can argue about the numbers, but the fact is that no one knows what they are.Huge numbers of non-EU students arrive here but this country has no way of knowing how many leave.

It is known that a percentage stays legally, having found work. A Home Office analysis of non-EU students arriving in 2004 found that 20% were still legally in Britain five years later.

No one knows what happened to the other 80%. It’s almost incredible that any government can make promises about controlling immigration if there is no method of counting everybody out. Amazingly, it will be years before one is set up.

However, if the public wants immigration to be controlled, it shouldn’t protest when it is. The UKBA behaved perfectly reasonably. What was unreasonable was its timing, for which the government must take responsibility.

It is depressing how often the coalition has undermined an excellent policy and aroused public fury simply by poor timing. It was not right to make squatters criminals overnight last week without plenty of public advance warning, though the principle of making squatting in people’s houses a crime was right.

It wasn’t right to change GCSE standards in the middle of the academic year, though again the determination of Michael Gove, the education secretary, to raise standards is right.

In the case of London Metropolitan University, it was wrong to get tough without notice with the unlucky foreign students who are already there (genuine or not), or who had made elaborate plans to enrol this autumn.

Their stories are very sad. About 2,600 students, both those already here and those about to come, are suddenly bereft. They’ve lost their money, their university place and their right to be here. Many have only 60 days’ notice to leave.

Even so, despite this unnecessary misery, it must be right to deal sternly with colleges and universities who cannot be trusted to help stop illegal immigration. My own view is that it’s a mistake to expect colleges and universities to take on this trust.

There is so clearly a conflict of interest for them when they are all short of money and rely increasingly on foreigners’ fees to keep them afloat. The vetting of students ought to be done by an independent agency.

Since the country’s policy is to control immigration, the question of the short-term value to the economy of foreign students ought to be irrelevant. Besides, bona fide students won’t be deterred, unless last week’s appalling timing is repeated.

The figures about the economic benefits of foreign students to Britain are highly debatable and don’t include questions of the long-term cost overall of permanent immigrants and their families.

The National Union of Students claims that the income from higher education for foreigners is worth £12.5 billion a year. Universities UK estimates £8 billion. But these figures include EU students.

MigrationWatchUK believes that only £4.8 billion comes from tuition fees and spending by non-EU subjects, and some of this actually includes money earned by students working here. This brings the figure to £4.3 billion a year, but doesn’t include the cost to the exchequer of providing public services such as schools and hospitals.

Cracking down on immigration scams is legitimate when properly done. It’s a great shame that in this case it has been badly handled. But if the public wills it to end, it must will any legitimate means to that end without the usual chorus of incoherent indignation.