7 Feb 2010

The Crackdown on Student Visas: Knee-Jerk Illiberalism

The home secretary Alan Johnson announced a crackdown on student visas aiming to cut the number of people coming to study in the UK by tens of thousands. It's quite hard to know what the intended aim of the policy is as the justification ranges from that student visas are being exploited by people coming to the UK to work to the truly surreal accusation that student visas are allowing terrorist suspects to come to the UK. The real aim, I think, is to project a sense of being in control of immigration and acting tough on border control. But like any of the hundreds of half-baked schemes that New Labour has come up with since it came to power, the result of this move will reinforce the illiberal attitude towards the free movement of people and is likely to damage the economy.

Conservative shadow home secretary Chris Grayling also spoke on the issue, I just heard him talking nonsense on the radio about the issue. As usual, whenever the Conservatives feel that Labour made a move to appear more nasty that they are, they decide to go one step further without even thinking it through. It was quite obvious that Grayling was not even familiar with the current legislation and its implementation at UK border entry points. Grayling proudly announced that his party will not only limit the number of student visas issued but will also prevent students once they completed their course from obtaining a work permit and staying to work in the UK.

What Johnson and Grayling seem to be entirely ignorant of is that the regulations on student visas are already quite tough and strict. Ask anyone who's done a course in this country about the process they had to go through in order to obtain a student visa and they will tell you about the endless amount of guarantees and paper work required before you are issued with a visa. Furthermore, once you are in the UK, there are strict rules on bringing in dependants, the amount of work that students and their partners can do, and absolutely no recourse to public funds whatsoever. It says so on the visa very clearly. That means to benefits of any kind, and no access to social services.

Despite how strict the system is, thousands of students come every year to study in the UK, paying much higher fees than their UK counterparts, and spending millions of pounds on accommodation and living expenses. Many of course choose to stay in the UK after they've completed their course, but unlike what Grayling thinks, this has been very good for the UK's economy. The ability for companies in the UK to recruit top graduates from all over the world has been a great advantage to their competitiveness. Firstly, it allows them much greater choice and secondly those employees bring with them knowledge of other countries which makes UK competitive abroad as well.

I am one of those that both Johnson and Grayling are trying to portray as some kind of suspects now. I came to the UK to do a masters degree and then stayed on. A few of my classmates have decided to stay as well, settling in at least for the medium term. I have done a very unscientific calculation, and worked out that I and the few classmates that have stayed here over the past six or so years, have payed more than one million pounds in taxes to Brown and Darling Co. That's roughly how much the treasury is asking MPs to pay back. Our net contribution to the UK economy is of course much higher, when you consider the added value we generate through employment and the spending that we contribute to UK Inc every year.

This is of course anecdotal, but generally not very far from the real picture. None of my friends have ever asked for unemployment benefits, none have asked for legal aid, in short we haven't cost the government anything. In addition, the tens of thousands of pounds we have paid in contributions to the NHS, have paid for a birth or two and a couple of visits to the GP. Pretty steep if you ask me, but we're happy to do it. By limiting the ability of people like us, or people in general, to come to the UK and chose to live here, Johnson and Darling are not exposing their illiberal attitudes but also depriving the UK economy from access to talented individuals that have a broader impact on this society than just their economic benefit.

The current regulations on student visas and immigration in general need relaxing not further toughening. In fact, an open border policy will be the ideal solution, but I don't see any politicians around with enough spine to champion such a cause. Picking on students is a cowardly policy that seeks an easy target to show that 'something is being done' about immigration. The result will feed the illiberal attitudes about immigration and damage the economy. Let's have a crackdown on hare-brained schemes like this instead.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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