During my ten years as President of Dublin City University, every so often I would seek out a government minister – any minister – at a reception or other event to tell them what damage the immigration system was inflicting on Ireland’s capacity to recruit international students. Politicians tend to pop up from time to time to extol the advantages of selling the country’s education abroad (hoping in part that the revenues will compensate for the loss of domestic funding), and in doing so they often seriously over-state the potential financial benefits; but then again, they also seem to be unaware of the damage they do to this very plan when they tighten immigration rules, or make more complicated the procedures for visa applications. Some of my colleagues would regularly tell me stories of student applicants lost from places like China and India because visas were not being granted with the same speed as was the case in some other countries.
Actually, in fairness ministers would often try to improve visa procedures, and sometimes they succeeded. But it still didn’t stop them from pursuing restrictive immigration policies. It always struck me as ludicrous, for example, that we would educate international students to high skill levels and then force them to leave the country again, when we could have used those skills.
This kind of contradiction appears to be an unavoidable feature of the system, as new visa rules just published in Britain again demonstrate. Because governments approach immigration as a prima facie bad thing, they promote not just rules to restrain it but also a general hostility to the whole idea which then infects areas, such as higher education, where they actually want to promote it. So here for example is a country that must want to be the world’s premier centre for high value courses for learning English; and that same country requires a high level of English proficiency before visas will be granted.
These issues will more easily be overcome if immigration is seen in a more rational way: as something that more often than not benefits the host country. It must be acknowledged that the British government has, in its new rules, attempted to meet some of the concerns of universities, but the overall tone is still one of, if not hostility to migrants, then at least scepticism about their bona fides. Ultimately, in a globalised world we will all need to take a more mature view of this. Of course countries cannot always accommodate a sudden flood of migrants, but they can build a system around a proper assessment of how immigration can benefit society and the economy. That would be a good start.