Let's open doors to new arrivals and their skills

24th April 2009 at 01:00

For as long as global transport is relatively cheap and easy, migration on a large scale is inevitable. People will always move to search for a better life, and much of the world believes that such a life is available here in Britain.

The question, then, is how we are to adapt? The proposal of a "welcome voucher" for free adult education, allowing immigrants to pay for language courses or Britons moving to a new area to make new contacts, is appealingly simple. It would provide a consistent, easily understood entitlement and encourage new arrivals to engage with their neighbourhood and local institutions.

The catch, as ever, is the likely cost. With Train to Gain courses finally filling up, it is hard to see where the spare public money for any further adult education provision would come from.

Tom Schuller, director of the inquiry into the future of lifelong learning, poses the question the other way around: given the benefits to Britain of immigration, can we afford not to integrate new arrivals?

Tax revenue from immigrants was Pounds 41 billion as far back as 2004 and is likely to be even higher now. The young adults who tend to migrate are offsetting the effects of Britain's ageing population, but their skills are not being fully used. Does it make sense that there should be highly skilled people working in menial jobs because of a lack of language skills?

The proposal of a universal entitlement to adult education is also a clever move. It is understandable that existing communities are uneasy at the notion of handouts to outsiders when resources always seem to be scarce, even if the evidence suggests that being parsimonious is a false economy. In making sure that everyone receives the same benefits - the young graduate moving from university in Leeds to London for work, or the family seeking a new home in the countryside, or anyone else relocating to change their work or life - that objection is quashed.

It also goes some way to restoring the freedom of choice in adult education which was forced out when funding was switched to the employer- based Train to Gain programme.

In a week when the Chancellor revealed an unprecedented deficit, a proposal for an uncosted new entitlement was always going to face huge obstacles. But with the Government adamant that the good times will return and that we need to prepare now to make the most of them, this proposal deserves to be taken seriously.

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