Business blog: The Immigration Question

By Rob Virtue on November 19, 2012 4:30 PM |

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In a guest column for The Wharf, Alison Hutton of Canary Wharf-based law firm Newland Chase asks whether UK immigration policy is really working, in her article Brain Gain - A missed opportunity driven by public perception of UK immigration?

It is difficult to deny that tough policies on immigration have always traditionally been a vote winner and any glance through the tabloid newspapers will serve to confirm that, whether it is overseas students coming to study at our universities or migrants seeking work here, the public perception if often that it is only the migrant who will gain.

However, in reality there is abundant evidence that skilled migrants can bring with them massive benefits to the host country.

Not only do they tend to contribute to the host economy by paying higher taxes and being less likely to seek state benefits, but they also contribute to business by bringing with them their knowledge of overseas markets, cultures and networks.

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There is even a case for arguing that rather than taking jobs from resident workers, highly-skilled migrants, investors or entrepreneurs actually create additional jobs and contribute to economic growth and development.

The same can be said for encouraging international students to choose our universities.

Despite public fears that foreign students are taking away places from home students and that our universities are simply being used as stepping stones to more permanent migration in to the UK, this couldn't be further from the truth.

In fact, the UK Council for International Student Affairs reports figures for 2010-11 which show that foreign students make up only 13 per cent of the total higher education population in the UK.

Since home students and overseas students are recruited completely separately with no shared allocation of places there is little risk of UK students missing out on university places to foreign students.

Added to this is the fact that as well as contributing approximately £14bn to the UK economy each year (making it one of the UK's largest exports), welcoming overseas students is vital to maintaining the UK's reputation in the global higher education sector and ensuring that students here continue to receive the un-doubted benefits of a multi-cultural experience.

Brain gain versus brain drain

There is even good news for those developing countries whose students and highly-skilled migrants seek to spend time abroad studying or working.

Far from suffering at the hands of richer nations, there is a strong school of thought which argues that these countries actually benefit from the emigration of their highly skilled nationals.

Particularly in the fields of science and research, the emigration of skilled workers is thought to encourage and improve return flows of knowledge to the home country, particularly when migrants return to their home country at a point in the future.

Returning professionals who maintain their overseas networks then facilitate continuing knowledge sharing across borders.

Migrants can also assist their home countries to break into overseas markets by establishing links and vouching for the quality of products, services and human capital coming out of the home markets.

There is even the possibility that emigration will have a positive outcome on those choosing to stay behind in terms of prompting increased investment in education and training.

Even without all of the above, no-one can argue with the most obvious benefit to the sending nations in the form of the remittances that are sent back by migrant workers to their home countries, which according to the World Bank amounted to the sum of $325bn in 2010.

So how does the UK compare to other countries in attracting top talent?

Unfortunately, the recent focus on restricting inward migration to the UK, coupled with events such as the London Metropolitan University losing its licence to sponsor students, is doing anything but rolling out the welcome mat to skilled migrants.

Against a back-drop of an ageing population, many might say that the Government actually needs to do more to encourage the highly skilled to come here and/or stay here.

Figures published by the Office of National Statistics in August 2012 suggest that the UK Government may be starting to succeed in its aim to drive down net migration figures as:

• The number of visas issued (excluding visitor and transit visas) fell by 16% in the year ending June 2012 to the lowest 12-monthly total recorded using comparable data available from 2005;

• Estimated net migration fell from 252,000 in the year ending December 2010 to 216,000 in the year ending December 2011; and

• Although study remains the most common reason for migrating to the UK, the number of student visas issued (including student visit visas) in the year ending June 2012 fell by 21% compared to the previous year.

Compare this to other countries such as the US who are talking about introducing legislation which would allow migrants who have obtained a Master's degree or a PhD from a US university and are able to secure a job in certain fields to be automatically placed on a track for a permanent resident visa or green card.

Similarly in Denmark (where they have until recently had some of the most strict immigration laws in Europe) changes have been made to relax these rules in an attempt to encourage skilled migrants.

Like the USA, they are also discussing proposals for graduating students to have access to an automatic green card which will allow them to remain and seek work.

Suffice to say that if in fact there are no real downsides to the global flow of highly-skilled migrants, then perhaps the UK Government needs to think carefully about its next move in order to ensure that we continue to be competitive in the global market-place.

Alison Hutton is a former executive officer at Home Office and is now senior consultant at immigration law firm Newland Chase, based in One Canada Square. Go to newlandchase.com

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