Posted tagged ‘student visas’

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.