Posted tagged ‘migration’

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.

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The world today: it’s all about migration

March 14, 2017

Whatever part of the world or country or region you may call your own, the population you share it with got there largely as a result of mass migration. Most of Europe is populated by those whose ancestors took part in the major movements of Völkerwanderung, and populations changed and shifted through major major migration or conquests. No significant country you have ever heard of has had a settled population through the centuries. Nor is this all ancient history – it has been a feature of all centuries, to some extent at least.

One of the consequences of migration has been the internationalisation of learning. Even when there were hardly any efficient methods of transport, scholars and students wandered between centres of education and enriched each other’s cultures. Universities became knowledge exchanges of scholarship and cultures, influencing national development (of which Scotland, from where I write, is an excellent example).

Of course large-scale migration also poses challenges and requires the adoption of sensible policies to manage it. But the desire sometimes expressed in modern times for a recognisably uniform autouchtonous ethnic culture that has uniform traits is not at all an expression of tradition: it contradicts civilised human experience and has the capacity to align itself with tyranny.

Many of our recent global developments have their roots in the fear of migration: Brexit, Donald Trump’s wall, ethnic cleansing. These are not good developments in so far as they are driven by fear and insecurity. Politicians must address this with more wisdom than many have shown; but in particular they must recognise that scholarship and learning cannot thrive within closed borders. And the higher education academy must keep making the case for the shared international experience of the educational community.

Globalisation and the immobile academic

August 9, 2011

This week I am about to undertake a house move. Or to be precise, my family and I are undertaking a series of complex moves, leaving an apartment in Yorkshire, moving most of its contents to an apartment in Dublin, and in turn moving the contents of our house in Dublin to our new home in Aberdeen. The complexity of this move is in part a reflection of our academic history, having worked in Dublin, Hull and now Aberdeen. In that sense I am a product of the global academic network, in which a move between institutions and indeed between countries has often been a normal part of academic career development. In fact until recently most universities would expect up to 10 per cent of their academic workforce to leave or migrate to another institution in any given year.

But no longer. Over the past two or three years the number of academic jobs advertised as vacant has been a fraction of what it once was. As funding is cut almost everywhere, faculty are staying in place as long as they can retain their jobs, and those leaving due to retirement are often no longer being replaced. Just as the spread of communications technology has made intellectual globalisation more and more of a reality, the physical migration of lecturers is in decline. Whereas in the past many younger academics would expect to move within the first ten years of their careers, nowadays they are likely to stay put and hope that they can get a more secure contract.

Does this matter? I think it does, because the decline of academic migration is just one of several changes in the academy, including the decline of conferencing, and the decline (as I expect) of external examining. Despite easy access to the global community through the internet, I suspect that many institutions will become more parochial, not only because fewer people are moving, but also because those that are there are less self-confident. It is to be hoped that the era of staffing reductions will not go on much longer; the effects are not just organisational, but also intellectual.

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.