How the immigration cap damages higher education in the UK

There are major concerns within the unions, the business community and the third sector over the consequences of the C.oalition government's cap on immigration.
Valérie Hartwich
5 October 2010

During the election campaign, the Conservatives promised to take strong measures on immigration, namely in the form of a limit to the number of non-European citizens allowed into the UK.

On July 19th the newly elected British government delivered its promise in the form of an interim cap on immigration, to be followed in April by a permanent cap. It's what the electorate wanted, argue the politicians in power. However, not everyone is convinced that it will be to the benefit of the country, its society and economy. Many voices within the cabinet, unions, the business community and the third sector have made it clear that there are concerns over its possible consequences.

Observers say that it was the Tories tough talk on immigration that got them elected. And so, now in the driver seat they had to follow words with action by imposing a maximum figure on the non-European Economic Area migrants allowed through the borders. Although the permanent cap will only come into effect next year, and its precise implementation is still to be decided, an interim limit was imposed to prevent a surge in arrivals until April.

Under the scheme employers are allocated a set number of Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS) to use for the recruitment of international nationals. The UKBA set the numbers of CoS by looking at the average number of CoS previously granted against their actual use. It found that on average 20% remained unused, which then translated into a cut in allocation of Certificates by 15% across the board. For the moment, the cap affects only two of the routes used by migrants, tiers 1 and 2, respectively Highly Skilled Migrants and Skilled Migrants with a job offer, but it is likely to extend to other tiers.

It may all sound like a jolly good solution to make sure those 'British jobs' go to 'British workers', or at least EEA ones, especially given the promises to boost training for the local job force, but it might in the shorter term cause great damage to many a sector which are by nature global markets.

Already, an academic at Imperial college London informed us of his concerns regarding the cap. Professor Adrian Sutton, head of the Condensed Matter Theory group at Imperial, told us

I have to say it is extremely worrying. On the one hand the College receives a good deal of Government funding from research councils and other sources, but at the same time we are not given free rein to recruit the best from wherever they may be found. This will undoubtedly have an impact on our ability to continue to deliver world-leading science and technology for the benefit of the UK.

Higher Education is such a global sector. Research relies on international collaborations; knowledge knows no borders, many academics teach in foreign countries, and international students increasingly choose to study abroad to widen their horizons and benefit from the best possible education.

A cap on tier 2, the main route for international academics, will impoverish the cosmopolitan nature of the sector by reducing the hiring of new non-EEA professors and the number of visas renewals, which also fall within the cap. Its monthly nature is entirely inadequate for Higher Education, a sector in which recruitment is a seasonal phenomenon.

So, unless a solution is found to fit the reality of the sector, the consequences will be severe. During a stakeholders meeting at the Home Office, a civil servant suggested the UK Border Agency was studying such a possibility, and also that of a special emergency pot of tier 1 visas. The trouble is tier 1 requires applicants to be able to show personal funds of quite a considerable sum, which is unlikely to be the case for many academics.

In any case, for some universities and specific departments the window for manoeuvre will considerably shrink, and as a consequence excellency of research and teaching shall suffer. In the case of Imperial, they 

received confirmation from the UKBA that the College’s allocation for the period of the interim limit between 19 July 2010 – 31 March 2011 will be reduced by 15% to 82 Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS). (...) During the first 9 months of our current allocation, the College has assigned 117 CoS i.e. approx 13 per month. Having performed a similar calculation on our revised allocation this would constitute a decrease to approx 10 per month for the College as a whole.” Adrian Sutton also forwarded us a note addressed to all those involved in recruitment within the college, which states that:“In line with current PBS regulations, wherever possible, EEA applicants who meet the essential criteria for a job should be shortlisted/appointed in preference to non-EEA applicants. 

The current limit leads universities to operate a discrimination in the selection of future academics, because of risks of visa refusal. This could put universities at risk of breaking Equality laws.

So much for academics, but what will happen to international students? As stated in a Guardian article on August the 2nd, the permanent cap is likely to include tier 4, the route through which international students come to the UK. It is at present the route generating the most entries into the country, and has been criticised for being too easily abused. To equate registration in a bogus institution with the conscious abuse of tier 4 seems exaggerated and ignores how difficult it can be for foreigners to obtain certainty that they are dealing with bona fide educational providers.

The issue of sham colleges and schools must be addressed as they can be used to abuse the system, but it is easiest done, and cheaper, by inspecting and monitoring the providers more closely rather than the individuals wishing to attend them. Inspecting facilities and reviewing staff has so far proven a highly efficient and quick method to tackle false institutions, one which would merit to be more widely used.

The cap to come on international students will be bad news for universities who are already worried by the budget cuts they face. Their ability to provide high quality education, good infrastructures to students, and low fees for home/EU individuals depends on the fees paid by non-EEA nationals estimated at between £5.3bn and £8bn every year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. Cap that and the route to a serious crisis across HE is paved. Concerned academics are already organising a conference to address these issues.

Another major source of concern is the possible scrapping of the appeal system. At the Home Office stakeholders meeting on the cap it surfaced that appeals might be a thing of the past. The issue was raised by a member of the audience, and denied by neither the UK Border Agency civil servant nor the members of committee set up to advise the government on its migration policy, the Migration Advisory Committee.

Considering the various administrative errors committed in the past, without an appeals system applicants unjustly turned down would have no other resort but to reapply, and repay. The idea of scrapping appeals assumes that the PBS works smoothly across the board, which is not the case.

When the UKBA representative was asked what was being done to ensure an equal and optimal service by all entities involved in processing applications, he replied:

We all work as hard as we can, and do the best we can. Our private partners have no reason not to do the same. But should you know of any cases of administrative error, please do let us know.

 A mere look at the UK Council for International Student Affairs' December 2009 report “Applying outside the UK”, shows how serious the issue is and why it came about. There is therefore every reason to be concerned should appeals truly no longer be.

So, here we are at an age when we are told to become more integrated, more flexible, more globalised. Never have we been more aware of how interdependent we are. One economy falls and like a game of dominoes, others follow. A researcher makes a discovery in a lab in Tamil Nadu, and his results help thousands of others across the globe, in turn solving a major health problem.

Yet, in this day and age, the Tory government has decided that it will set the limit on immigrants coming to its shores at 100,000. The arguments are valid for most, if not all employers. So never mind the damage that it could do to businesses, universities, or the NHS, the cabinet looks set to implement a policy because it made a promise and because it wants to look tough in the eyes of the public.

History has shown us that fear-mongering comes back in times of economic hardship. Unless the general economic mood improves, this shall not change. It will therefore take an extremely courageous government to raise, let alone scrap, the cap, even if it is proven to be detrimental. 


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