FEfocus Editorial - Immigration should not be FE's problem

17th September 2010 at 01:00

There is so much debate about immigration - usually accompanied by a complaint that you're never allowed to discuss it - that it is hard to imagine that any aspect of it has been overlooked. But it is rarely mentioned that within the great Eastern European diaspora that particularly provokes the knee-jerks is a generation of people for whom the idea of upping sticks had a particular appeal.

In the Communist Eastern bloc, simply deciding to move from one part of the country to another for work or love could involve a whole bureaucracy scrutinising your motives. How amazing must it have been for them suddenly to have had the whole of Europe open up to them, with the "nothing to declare" green channel gaping invitingly?

And is it possible that some day the idea of restrictions on moving between countries for employment opportunities, leisure or study will seem just as outmoded and bizarre as the propiska, the USSR's internal passport system?

Sadly, while you can find plenty of people who will argue for the free movement of goods and capital, there are not so many who will stick up for the free movement of people.

So perhaps it is best to consider foreign students as an economist would: as exports of our educational expertise, even if it also involves the importing of their physical presence to our shores. In that light, cutting off the recruitment by FE colleges looks like the sort of behaviour that the Tory party should have got over by the time of the repeal of the Corn Laws.

It's particularly hard to take this kind of talk from immigration minister Damian Green. For foreign students, he implies that the only worthwhile study which will benefit Britain and the students themselves is a degree from an elite university. Yet as shadow education secretary in 2003, he was telling anyone who would listen how he planned to cut the number of "useless" degree courses and "raise the status of high-value vocational courses". What happened?

It is to be hoped that Mr Green can recover his former good sense. At the root of this immigration policy seems to be the fear that students do not leave at the end of their studies, but become permanent residents.

Whether this is because they are later given working visas or because they simply overstay, it is not an education problem and it is wrong to try to deal with it by restricting FE colleges from capitalising on their international reputation. If the Home Office cannot operate a visa system worthy of the name, then picking on other departments is not going to help.

The Government has pledged to bring annual net immigration down to "tens of thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands". But a student visa should never contribute to net immigration in the long term, because it expires with the end of the course. It would be perfectly reasonable to exclude student visas from the net migration target on this basis and the Government should do so.

Then it can get on with the business of deciding what is best for our economy and education system in the recruitment of international students, instead of attacking the legitimate aspirations of young people abroad as a shortcut to meeting its tabloid-friendly pledge.

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