THE NEWS that the number of overseas students at UK universities has fallen for the first time in almost 30 years is little less than a national scandal.
When migrants are responsible for founding as many as one in seven UK businesses – according to the Centre for Entrepreneurs – and our companies struggle to find the skilled talent they need to grow, the last thing we should be doing is closing the door to the world’s brightest and best talent.
But that is what the government is starting to achieve, courtesy of a series of unsavoury episodes in its policy towards migrants. One recent case was immigration minister James Brokenshire’s infamous speech to the Demos think tank, replete with dog whistles about British jobs and British workers. That followed the notorious “go home or face arrest” vans. Less often recalled (yet no less damaging) was the quickly-shelved idea to impose a £3,000 security bond charge on short-term visitors from “high risk” countries like India, Pakistan and Nigeria, a deposit to be paid back only on departure.
In its rush to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” by the next election, the government is succeeding in convincing some of the world’s most talented young minds that Britain will not provide a home for them.
A report last week from the Higher Education Funding Council showed that international and EU student numbers decreased by 4,595 in 2012-13, the first such decline since 1985. That followed a survey from the National Union of Students in January, showing that 51 per cent of international students found the government unwelcoming. In 2012-13, meanwhile, the number of Indian postgraduate students at Russell Group universities declined by 18 per cent. This is worrying news, when the Department for Business has estimated that, in 2008-09, education exports were worth about £15bn.
While few would argue that our current immigration system functions effectively, turning away the world’s talent and ideas is not the answer. That is the route to economic, social and intellectual isolationism, not a prescription for growth and development.
Rather than the blunt instrument of the net migration target, the government should be focusing on practical measures like the reintroduction of exit checks. It also needs to align its immigration and economic agendas, which are failing to work in harmony. Initiatives such as the Sirius Programme for international graduate entrepreneurs – which has attracted 1,500 applicants in its first year – risk being undermined by contrasting smoke signals from the Home Office.
And while Britain is already starting to count the costs of a reduction in international student numbers, our competitors are benefitting in turn. Canada is on an aggressive recruitment drive for international students, while the French government is moving to simplify the visa application process to double the number of Indian students at France’s universities.
The Prime Minister is fond of referring to Britain as being in a “global race” for growth, trade and investment. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition between the government’s economic and immigration policies closer resembles a three-legged race.
Lord Bilimoria CBE DL is founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, and founding chairman of the UK-India Business Council.