Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Question of Foreign Students

The British Immigration Minister delivered a speech on the forthcoming changes of the student visa system on the 1st February, and followed it up with a number of interviews on Television and Radio. This set of statements are intended to be justifications, of a policy direction already set. Considering that the Immigration Minister has said the same things before, and saying these now immediately as the Home Office's public consultation on the student visa system got over (the last date to respond was 31st January), the policy direction is already set.

From the tone of the statement, one would suspect that the government is trying hard to justify this set policy now. Earlier, this was about the election promise about curbing immigration. Now, as the government's policies are driving Britain into a quicksand of recession, and the unemployed figure is going past 2.5 million, it is natural for the immigration minister to justify his plans as if this is done to protect jobs. That's exactly what he tried to do. The truth is, however, that the immigration policies of this government are a mixture of xenophobia and confusion, and this came out plain in the Immigration Minister's statement.

What comes out, in essence, is that this Government is completely out of touch with the twenty-first century. For example, it is talking about setting systems by which it only gets the best and the brightest and not the rest, and to do so, it is making the immigration system 'water-tight'. The first problem, you don't attract the best and the brightest in the world through a difficult immigration system, you attract them through making your universities world-class. At the time when the government is pushing for drastic cuts in funding in education and research facilities, there is very little evidence that this government can crack the code for attracting such students. Besides, the other part of the rhetoric is that the government does not want the students to settle in Britain permanently. From any angle, this seems strange: You don't want the best talents in the world to get the education (okay, they pay for it) and then walk away. A country's government needs to be able to think more strategic than a training center owner, whose only interest may lie in collecting the student fees. From whatever we have seen so far, this Government may be more interested in short term political brownie points than the long term future of Britain.

We must also consider that the Immigration Minister in his statement singularly picks up on private sector education for failing to keep track of their students. The center-piece of his argument is a statement: In a sample survey carried out with private sector institutions 'about which we have suspicions', it was found 26% of their students are not being accounted for. Next minute, he presents another figure, 91,000 visas have been issued to students to come to study in the Private Sector colleges in Britain this academic year till January.

Indeed, anyone listening will sit up and think - more than 20,000 students may now potentially disappear after coming to this country, in effect, turned illegal immigrant.

The point is that this data is plainly alarmist and off the mark. First, the Minister is talking about a sample from 'suspicious colleges', no way representative of the sector. Second, we don't know how big is the sample. Most of the other evidence presented in the speech are anecdotal, so one may think that the Border Agency did not do much of empirical work. Third, since the exit checks have been abolished in Britain, there is no way tracking a person who leaves the country on their own free will. Fourth, a bit of anecdotal evidence countering the claim made - I have been told by an university that the Border Agency could only deport about 30 odd illegal migrants though they have been told about hundreds of absentee students last year. Even if the addresses of these potential illegals are supplied, the Border Agency simply does not have the staff or the will to be able to remove them. In summary, what we have is an implementation issue, not a case of gross corruption as it is being projected.

The problem is that with this alarmist noise, Britain is being seen in Asia, Africa and elsewhere as an increasingly xenophobic country (a recent survey actually shows that the Britons are most wary about immigration among eight European and North American nations, though we may have less immigrants than at least five other countries surveyed) and this does not make it an attractive destination for the best and the brightest in the world. In today's world, the countries should focus on 'talent management' not 'securing the borders', and Britain is singularly failing in both.

The reason we landed up with more foreign students with lesser academic capability is because our government has so far taken a shop-keeper's approach to education, counting the fees but not accounting for the education ecosystem. For example, while complaining about the jobs taken by foreign students, one has to realize that many of these jobs will not exist anyway without them. The cozy rent that London landlords have got used to would melt away if the foreign students pack their bags and go to Ireland. The universities and colleges, if they can't recruit the students to come in, will go elsewhere and create clusters of competence which will, in time, make the countries compete with Britain in education provision. The Minister notes that the foreign students contribute £5 Billion to Britain's economy every year; however, losing the 'preferred' status as an education destination will possibly cost us ten times as much.

the Immigration Minister laments that many foreign students, after graduating, go into low skill jobs (like Customer Service, he said!) and therefore, end up stealing jobs from British Graduates. Again, that expression is apt - apparent muddle - because one would expect British graduates to compete for skilled jobs and not unskilled ones. Besides, the reason many foreign graduates are forced to go into low skilled jobs immediately after graduation is that the recruitment system in Britain is still racially biased against a non-EU migrant (who receive at least 30% less in pay for a like-for-like skill set) and that many businesses and public organizations have such detailed and immutable requirements for jobs, it is almost impossible for a person who spent at least a part of his life in a different country to meet all these requirements.

In summary, I think the immigration minister has got many things wrong. We need more foreign students, not less. We need more respect and opportunity for private sector education, not less. We need a twenty-first century approach to immigration, not an elitist, devoid of reality one. We need better implementation and less intervention, not the opposite. We need investments in universities and research, not take them for granted. We need to create jobs for British graduates by conscious adjustments with the twenty-first century global economy, not by shutting the door and pretending to be Victorians.

Education is the killer app of our time. It is time that we take this seriously.

1 comment:

Jose said...

Of course, the idea to tighten the immigration system will in turn weaken the economy. The only reason why qualified Indian students go to low skill job due to not being equally assessed.

Thanks

Jose

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