Posted tagged ‘immigration’

Understanding migration

April 2, 2018

Migration has become one of the central issues of modern politics. It is arguable that it was the key driver of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, and it may well have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election. Of course not everyone who based their votes on concerns about immigration will have done so for the same reasons. Some will have been concerned about pressures on social services; some will have believed that immigration drives up indigenous unemployment; some will have had concerns about the erosion of local tradition and culture; some (and I believe, very few) will have been motivated by racism. Some will have wanted to have little or no immigration at all (which was pretty much the position of UKIP in the UK), some will have been less concerned about numbers than about processes.

It is however important to say to those who believe that immigration is a dangerous new development and that it has a detrimental economic and social impact that there is little evidence to support their views. Mass immigration is certainly not new. In fact, if it were new I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Every country you are likely to have ever lived in or visited has a population built on historical mass migration. All of Europe got its ethnic mix – including its cultures, languages and national identities – from the Völkerwanderung of the first millennium. The UK itself is, in ethnic terms, the product of invasion and migration; there is little left of any earlier population. Interestingly these mass movements on the whole eradicated prior cultures, which is not something that today’s migration tends to do. And of course, the United States of America owes its entire identity to immigration.

There is also little evidence that mass migration is economically or socially bad. Almost everywhere, including in the UK, it has stimulated rather than depressed economic activity and employment. Indeed it is pretty clear that any sudden drop in immigration would have dangerous economic consequences, and would place considerable strain on public finances, particularly in relation to pensions.

It is important to say to those who believe in the retention of a fairly insulated ethnic composition and culture that this is not possible. Global travel and global economic activity have increasingly ruled it out, and advanced economies will necessarily be magnets for migration, and will need this migration to prosper. The only sensible discussion should be about how to manage this, and in what circumstances and by what means to constrain it. Numerical targets for net migration are unwise; no government can deliver on these.

For all that, unrestrained and unmanaged migration is not realistic either, but the management of migration will not be successful if it starts from the premise that immigration is bad and needs to be stopped. Politicians need to be honest with the people about the benefits of immigration and the ways it can be made to work. Allowing people to believe that there could be a return to some mythical history in which indigenous culture was unaffected by migrants is dishonest.

I have worked in universities for forty years. None of what we value in higher education would have been possible without significant academic migration. It is time to realise that this is true more widely, not only of universities.


The global world of higher education. Or maybe not.

November 8, 2016

We are now nearly five months on from the ‘Brexit’ referendum in which a narrow majority of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. It is generally assumed by commentators (although of course there is no actual statistical evidence) that the key driver of this decision was opposition to immigration. The impact of the undoubtedly high net migration into the United Kingdom was certainly a major topic of debate during the campaign, and indeed became the main argument used by at least some of the ‘Leave’ campaigners.

While it is impossible to tell what motivated individual voters, it is not unreasonable to argue that immigration was an issue. In that sense, the post-referendum discussions about how to limit immigration may not be a surprise, but it has had a particular impact on universities. Higher education operates in a global setting. Movement between countries by staff and students is a key feature, and contributes significantly to academic excellence and, as regards student migration, to exports.

Over the years governments have demonstrated that, whatever their policies or their ideology, none of them were able to reduce net immigration, even (in the case of non-EU migration) where they had all the apparently necessary tools at their disposal. However, there is one group of migrants – students – whose movements are more easily controlled, simply because universities can be forced to act as policing agencies and can be penalised if they are ineffective. Perhaps recognising this fact, the government (or more specifically, the Home Secretary Ms Amber Rudd MP) has focused quite specifically on the control and reduction of overseas student numbers, and at the Conservative Party conference in September she announced a further ‘crackdown’ on student migration. Attempts to persuade the government to exclude students from immigration statistics – which would be totally reasonable given the temporary nature of their presence – have been rejected.

The government’s policy in this area simply does not make sense. Student migration is, by any standards, not an economic, social or cultural problem for the UK. It is however a significant element of a world class university system, and if the view gains ground that Britain does not particularly want international students, the whole university system will suffer. In the meantime the government is also coming under international political pressure in this matter, including (as we have seen over the past day or two) from countries like India with whom the UK is desperate to do business post-Brexit.

One general concern with the Brexit landscape is that policy is not being guided by reason. The government is being buffeted about by the sometimes rather shrill demands of pro-Brexit newspapers and commentators, and responds with an apparent inclination to appease these voices. The long-term damage to Britain from all this may turn out to be significant. It is time to base policy on a much more calm assessment of the evidence.

The angry brigade, intolerance and the assault on Enlightenment values

October 10, 2016

Last night I watched the second US presidential debate. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or for that matter what I would find most satisfying, but I wanted to see it happening live. The post-debate consensus appears to be that Hillary Clinton won a particularly nasty event – in which, mind you, the nastiness did not particularly come from her.

But if we are horrified, as I am, by all the bile and aggression, we have to acknowledge that it’s not just appearing in American politics. In Europe the language of political discourse is taking similar forms in some contributions from France and Germany (and elsewhere). In Britain we have just witnessed a party’s internal ‘debate’ that involved an emergency hospital visit. And often when we get to hear members of the public contributing to a discussion the tone is one of anger.

There are several layers to this phenomenon, and the most obvious one is not the most important. Commentators are referring to the current political mood as something unprecedented – a growing group of people who have become angry because they have been ‘left behind’, because the gap between their means or aspirations and those of an ‘elite’ has widened excessively, whose fears and discomforts are not identified and addressed by that elite. In fact some of this is a true reflection of global societies: income inequality has been growing, albeit less because of pressures on the poor but more because of a huge growth in more extreme wealth. But then again, how can we explain such anger leading to support by the angry for a billionaire (Donald Trump) or for a former city trader (Nigel Farage)?

The more significant element here is that the angry sections of the population have, as people often do, been looking for someone to blame; and across continents that someone is the foreigner. The key shout has been to stop migration. This is by far the most important, and the most worrying, aspect of recent trends in popular opinion, and of political responses to it.

Of course concerns with immigration can be quite rational. No place can at short notice accommodate a massive influx of people, as Germany has discovered, and a clash of cultures between migrants and host communities can create genuinely uncomfortable (and indeed unacceptable) consequences. It is not disreputable to say that immigration must be managed intelligently. But you can measure the competence and integrity of politicians by the way they undertake this task, a hugely important part of which is to stop the emergence of xenophobia and racism. Many of the current generation of leading politicians globally (with some very honourable exceptions) are failing dismally. Or worse, they see it as their opportunity to follow the mob and stoke the fires of resentment.

The key victim of all of this is the western post-war liberal consensus. In Britain the attack on liberal values has most recently come from politicians who might have been expected to defend them, but who appeared to conclude that they must side with public opinion (as for example expressed in the Brexit decision). Some academics have recently pointed out that UK politicians are departing from the Enlightenment values that actually have their origins in Britain and which made the country a beacon of tolerance and decency. And this is a dangerous road on which to travel; it has only ever led to catastrophe.

Those of us who still believe in liberal Enlightenment values, even where we understand the pressures facing people in their lives, must not now stay silent. We should not be intimidated by the insults flying in our direction, often from the left as much as from the right. The freedoms that we all still enjoy are very very easily lost, and very hard to recover when they are.

Knocking on Europe’s door

October 7, 2013

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee

Last Friday, October 4th, was a day of national mourning in my native country, Italy. The reason was not some unpredictable ‘act of God’ or a natural calamity, but a recurrent tragedy and a preventable one. A boat full of African migrants sank off the coast of Sicily near the island of Lampedusa, only 70 miles from Tunisia. This is the latest and, given the scale (over 300 people feared dead), the worst migrant shipwreck the country has ever experienced. As a ‘privileged immigrant’ myself I have read the news reports with a particular sense of dismay. The people who lost their lives, no matter whether they were economic migrants or asylum seekers, are not simply a statistic; what the crude numbers cannot tell are the stories, the aspirations, the desperation of young men, women and children who believed that knocking on Europe’s door would secure a better future, often their survival and that of their families left behind.

Europe, for anyone fleeing from war and hunger, must appear like some kind of heaven on earth: a ‘land of opportunities’, to quote PM David Cameron’s conservative vision for Britain expressed in his party conference conclusive speech. Unfortunately the land of opportunities is not for all, and especially not for migrants if one considers the ‘returns’ pilot launched last summer. The pilot involved two vans with the slogans ‘In the UK illegally?’ ‘Go home or face arrest’ and a phone number for people to call for advice about repatriation. The government’s increasingly tough rhetoric around immigration, most probably prompted by concerns surrounding the rise of the UKIP, has been so ill advised that it has also threatened to deter thousands of the best international students from studying at UK universities.

The UK anti-immigration stance is not unique. Border fences and walls, vaguely reminiscent of pre-1989 Berlin, are rising in some US states, while in Australia the newly elected Prime Minister has promptly decided to cut foreign aid and devised a border protection plan under which the Australian navy would turn back Indonesian fishing boats carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters.  It is often argued that the current atmosphere surrounding migrants is due to the tough economic times; this is certainly true, however I believe that it is only the latest stage in the progressive erosion of fundamental cultural beliefs, among which are multiculturalism and human rights. Already in March 2011 on this blog it was noted how both Cameron and Merkel declared that multiculturalism had failed. More recently, the UK Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and the Home Secretary Theresa May have started lobbying for the UK to quit the European Convention of Human Rights, a decision that Ken Clark, the former Justice Secretary, has described as a ‘political disaster’, because it would unravel ‘fundamental liberties established under Europe’s post-second world war settlement’.

No one is advocating a European policy of completely open doors. A system of quotas, better co-ordination among the various European and international agencies and aid in loco should be implemented. Also in order to prevent other tragedies from happening there is a need for better patrolling on the North African coast. It is alarming that in the latest EU Annual Report on Immigration Lampedusa is not even mentioned among the geographical ‘pressure points’ (p.16)  I am rarely in agreement with the Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, and yet he is right when he said ‘This is not an Italian tragedy, this is a European tragedy… Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy’.

I also applaud Pope Francis’ comments made in Lampedusa on his first official trip outside Rome last July. During the homily the Pope called on society to overcome what he called ‘the globalization of indifference’ with regard to the frequent news reports on the deaths of the people who were trying to make the crossing. Yesterday night one of the Italian TV channels decided that the best way to commemorate the loss of so many migrant lives was not to host a useless debate but to air the movie Terraferma (2011).  Set in the beautiful island of Lampedusa it tells the story of a poor family of fishermen who defy the law of the state, according to which only the local police patrol can rescue illegal immigrants at sea, and follow the traditional ‘Law of the Sea’ thus becoming unwitting criminals.

The moral dilemma that the Lampedusa fishermen, and we all, face is reminiscent of the one rehearsed in the classic tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. According to the Law of the state Antigone’s brother, viewed as a traitor, cannot be buried and yet in a scene that has lost none of its poignancy, under a bright mid-day sun Antigone wildly flings handfuls of dirt on the rotting corpse of her slain brother declaring that ‘great unwritten, unshakable traditions’ take precedence over the laws of the state. In Antigone Sophocles asks which law is greater, the gods’ or man’s; in devising our migration laws we should make sure that the moral imperative of one does not come into conflict with the cold, rational character of the other.

How to destroy Britain’s international reputation for higher education

August 31, 2012

The issue of immigration, with which so many people in Britain are unhealthily obsessed, is right now threatening to inflict significant damage on the country’s higher education system. Under rules adopted over recent years, universities (and other institutions) can recruit and teach international – i.e. non-EU – students if they secure ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status awarded by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). This requires institutions to meet a number of conditions relating to how students are recruited and how they perform, and what measures are taken to monitor them. The bureaucratic complexity of the system can be gleaned here.

It is worth stating in passing that the system is hugely labour-intensive and also places the university in a rather different relationship with its overseas students: not just teaching them, but controlling them and observing (one might say snooping on) their lives. From student feedback, particularly feedback they deliver in their home countries, the UKBA régime is being interpreted as showing hostility by Britain to international students. Even without the events described below, this has visibly damaged efforts to recruit such students, and this in turn has had a direct financial, and of course educational, impact. It is, to be frank, complete lunacy; though of course all universities have no option but to follow the rules.

And now, the UKBA has stripped London Metropolitan University (a very large institution) of its ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status, as it was not satisfied with the performance and abilities of some of its overseas students. This has not only resulted in the university being prevented from admitting any new overseas students, but has also placed existing overseas students at risk of deportation unless another, UKBA approved, university can be found for them at very short notice. This is not likely to happen. In the meantime the university has rejected the alleged findings of the UKBA.

The result of this is a major disaster for Britain’s reputation as a destination for international students, and it will affect pretty much all other universities. Moreover it is the kind of disaster from which there can only be a very slow recovery, if that. It is almost impossible to understand how any government body could consider this a good idea. The impact on the UK’s higher education system could well be catastrophic. It is time for the UK government to address this, and to take steps to avoid this calamity.

International students – no longer welcome?

February 7, 2012

One of the key features of higher education across the developed world in recent years has been the growth of student migration. Students have increasingly been encouraged to consider universities in other countries when making their study choices, and this has led to a very significant internationalisation of higher education. Some countries – and the United States of America in particular – have a long record of attracting overseas students, many of whom then stayed and contributed to innovation and economic growth. And while it may not have been something that was always stressed as part of the reason for international student recruitment, host countries tended to benefit significantly from the tuition fees paid by these students.

But in Britain at any rate, is this about to come to an end? Over the past while UK visa regulations have placed increasing burdens both on overseas students coming into the country and on the universities in which they wish to study. It is a highly bureaucratic and intrusive framework, and it has been seen in many countries from which students have been recruited as indicating that foreign students are no longer welcome in Britain. And now, this has been reinforced by some political messages. British Immigration Minister Damian Green, describing as ‘beneficial’ a drop of 11 per cent in student visas, recently said the following in a speech:

‘Of course international students bring economic and wider benefits. But … there is scope for further examination of whether and to what extent foreign student tuition fees boost the UK economy and crucially how UK residents ultimately benefit from that. We need a better understanding of the economic and social costs and benefits of student migration: from the point of view of the wider UK economy, the education sector itself and the students themselves.    There needs to be a focus on quality rather than quantity. The principle of selectivity should apply to student migration just as it does to work migration.’

The Minister is therefore suggesting that attracting overseas students, even very good ones, is not necessarily positive, and he voices doubts about the economic impact or benefit of their fees. He also shows no awareness of or sympathy for the wider principle of an international dimension to higher education.

In many countries, and in Britain in particular, debates about immigration quickly turn into unpleasant discussions in which gut suspicions, sometimes mixed at least a little with xenophobia, distort rational decision-making. The current trend of UK policies on immigration is bizarre, and is undermining the global reputation of British higher education. There are traces of this also in other countries. None of this makes sense, and it undermines the ethos of higher education. Politicians need to think again, urgently.

Migrating students – or not

July 27, 2011

If you want to have a completely irrational conversation that brings out another person’s prejudices in an almost hysterical way, then try talking about immigration with someone who has conservative inclinations and reads certain newspapers. If you want to push the boundaries a little, suggest to them that immigration is good for the economy and that it benefits society. As you continue the conversation, see them gradually lose their grip on reality.

For years now some politicians and some newspapers have been whipping up public indignation about migration, and as a result public discourse on the topic has become impossible, unless you believe that completely crazy discussions have some value. There are acres of studies on migration, its causes, its effects, its benefits and its risks, but in England in particular public opinion has become so unbalanced that politicians hardly even pretend now to base their decisions on evidence. Even those who one might suspect are in reality quite rational in their views appear to believe they must express thinly disguised xenophobic views in public.

Talk of this kind not only makes xenophobia and racism seem respectable, because those with deep prejudices find excuses apparently rooted in economics or welfare policy, it also pushes countries into decisions that are completely at odds with their own self-interest. Another example of this has been the decision by the Conservative-led coalition government in London to reduce the number of overseas students studying in the the United Kingdom. The Home Secretary’s own officials have estimated that this move will cost Britain some £3.6 billion. However, Ms Theresa May has decided that she does not believe this evidence, presumably thereby implying that she has no intention of changing the policy. In fact Ms May is not an irrational person, but she clearly believes that she must not allow the facts to cloud her policy, because she knows well enough what some of her party’s supporters, and some of her media backers, want.

The British approach to immigration is daft in a general way. But its impact on universities, which badly need the revenues from overseas students as well as the important benefits derived from an education open to multi-cultural influences, is horrendous. As the UK gets a reputation for hostility to foreign students – and this is already happening – it is jettisoning some of the most important values of a civilised education system, as well as some of the economic benefits.

Speaking from Scotland, I hope (as I have said before) that student migration becomes an issue for the Scottish parliament. The Westminster government has shown that it cannot handle it objectively.

The truly amazing world of UK immigration policy, and an assault on higher education

June 21, 2011

British immigration law and its administration appears to be based on one particular assumption: if you want to come to the UK, you’re up to no good. How this affects other areas of life may be a topic for another day; today I am principally concerned about the impact on higher education.

For those students from outside the EU aspiring to study in the UK, getting there (even with the best academic qualifications) is not easy. The UK Border Agency, which administers the immigration process, maintains a website that sets out the rules and facilitates online applications for a visa. But the process is horrendously complex, and the Agency also takes great care to make studying in Britain unattractive. So for example a student holding a so-called ‘Tier 4’ visa must leave the UK within four months of completing her/his studies; it is well known that for many coming to Britain the ability to work in the country for a while after graduation in order to recoup the costs of studying is a vital element in the decision to apply.

And now, universities are also having to become the kind of suspicious and apparently xenophobic bodies that will really upset international students. They can be given the status of a ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’, which provides them with somewhat more discretion in the process for recruiting overseas students. But they must then be zealous enforcers of immigration rules, and they must hold themselves in constant readiness in case the UK Border Agency decides to do a spot check on how they are carrying out their role, whether their paperwork is complete, and so forth.

The whole thing is totally crazy. Higher education is a major export service, and like all services it must, to be successful, meet the customer’s needs. Giving the aspiring student the impression that they are not really wanted is not clever practice. Some degree of regulation is not necessarily wrong, but the student’s experience with the national bureaucracy will influence how much they will find the studies to be of value and whether they will recommend a UK university education to others in their home country. In the meantime, the reported reduction of 230,000 student visas planned by the British government, in order to meet rather foolish immigration cuts targets, will again suggest to international students that they are not wanted.

One item on the list of powers to be transferred to the Scottish government from Westminster should perhaps be immigration policy. If England is determined to put international students off, there is no overwhelming need for Scotland to follow suit.

Visa contradictions

March 25, 2011

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.

The immigration imperative (and what universities can do)

March 16, 2011

For most of my life I have ben very aware of my status as an immigrant, though thankfully it has never been an oppressive awareness. Having been born in Germany, my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. I spoke no English and had never seen any country other than Germany, so Ireland was a whole new and rather exotic world to me, one into which I integrated quite fast. When at the age of 14 I returned to Germany with my family (not having been there even once in the intervening years), I once again felt like an immigrant and the new/old host country seemed different and strange. I returned to Ireland some years later, and have spent time in England, the United States and Ecuador.

When we arrived in Ireland for the first time in 1961, immigrants of any description were a novelty. My father’s preference for traditional German clothing (including Lederhosen, bless him) made him stand out in 1960s Mullingar, and I remember my older sister and I walking a few feet behind him so as not to be immediately associated with him, and so as to have the opportunity to observe people’s bemused expressions after they had passed him. But Mullingar, like Ireland more generally, was always hospitable, and while nobody could have said that my parents ceased to appear to be German, we all integrated well into local society and were made welcome there.

But even when I was a student in Dublin in the 1970s there were very few signs of other cultures – if you discounted English culture.  It was not until I returned to Dublin from Hull in England in 2000 that I found a completely different society which had now experienced significant immigration. And I must admit that, these days, it is a matter of real delight to me to hear so many different languages and to see visible signs of other nationalities in our midst. But what delights me even more is that, by and large, immigration has not been accompanied in Ireland by growing racism and ethnic intolerance. It’s not that we experience none of this – and when we do it is always shocking – but rather that it has not become part of the national discourse as it is in England, Germany or France.

So from this vantage point, what do we make of the comments by leading politicians in other countries about the failings of multiculturalism? British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly remarked that German attempts to create a multicultural society had ‘utterly failed.’ What did they mean? Are they right?

The basic argument of Cameron and Merkel is that the immigrant groups have not sufficiently integrated into British or German society and had not accepted local social values (Cameron made several references to women’s rights as part of this). Both were probably thinking of the alleged growth of home grown terrorism as much as anything to do with social values, but nevertheless, does their point stack up? The answer probably is, to an extent. There is some evidence that immigrant ethnic groups living in enclosed communities largely insulated from the host country’s society can become a problem – not just in whatever might breed there politically, but also in terms of their vulnerability to racism and disadvantage. The lesson is in part that integration is matters like housing, schooling and employment contribute significantly to stability.

There may be some evidence that Ireland, having started late as a host country for immigrants, is not performing its task too badly. Though this may seem difficult to believe during a time of recession, but countries in this part of the world need immigration and will continue to need it, to close the demographic gap caused by falling birth rates and to ensure the availability of skilled labour. And as this is so, we need to ensure that it is a country that welcomes migrants and encourages them to become part of the local and national society.

Universities too have their role to play, as they often have easier access to the migrants’ cultures and languages and can provide educational and community supports. DCU’s work in interculturalism and in translation studies is a good example.

We must expect that immigration is part of our future; let us make sure we get it right.