25 May 2023

Sky-high net migration is a political crisis – so how will the Government deal with it?


I’m old enough to remember when a Conservative prime minister pledged to cut net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. Fast-forward a decade or so and we’re looking at a figure of 606,000 – a new record, and one that Rishi Sunak would probably rather didn’t have his name attached to it.

It’s worth breaking down that massive number into its constituent parts. That 606,000 figure comes from approximately 1.2 million people arriving in the UK last year, and 557,000 leaving. There’s also been a profound shift in the make-up of immigration, with the vast majority (925,000) now being non-EU nationals. Indeed, net migration for EU nationals is actually negative, at -51,000.

So what’s behind this figure?

The most obvious place to start is universities, given that some 208,000 people arriving here are international students and their dependents, the latter a category the Government is now pledging to ‘crack down on’.

There is no doubt that the UK has a globally respected university system – indeed, Britain’s world-class higher education system was one of the main reasons my own family decided to migrate to the UK from Bangladesh. But there remain serious questions over the degree to which recent waves of international students are contributing towards improving academic standards or economic output.

As Jess Hilton recently flagged for CapX, the most rapid growth in migrants coming to the UK on study visas is from India and Nigeria. For Indian students there are no Russell Group universities among the top 30 universities choices, and for Nigerian students, none in the top 50. Many are studying for degrees that tend not to carry much weight in the labour market – with business and management courses dominating non-EU masters students’ choices. While plans to reduce the number of student-related dependents entering the UK may be welcome, there are costs to slashing international student numbers – with many middle-and-lower ranking universities exceptionally reliant on their tuition fees and social activities.

Along with the non-EU net migration figure of 179,000 for work (including dependents), this year’s net migration number has also been boosted by humanitarian factors. For the first time, asylum seekers, of whom there were 73,000, were included in the figures. Special visa routes – including resettlement schemes for Ukrainian refugees and Hongkongers escaping Communist tyranny – account for another 172,000 people.

So while it is perfectly legitimate to say that this level of immigration is not sustainable because of pressures on housing availability, public services, or social cohesion (notwithstanding home-grown policy failures on all three fronts) – we should also bear in mind those one-off humanitarian factors. It is certainly not a ‘Brexit betrayal’ to provide sanctuary for Ukrainian families escaping a vicious Russian war machine, or Hongkongers with a strong affection and attachment to the UK, hounded out by a brutal dictatorship. The welcome we’ve given both groups exemplifies the compassion and decent-hearted nature of modern-day Britain, as well as serving as a rejoinder to the idea we are a country of small-minded xenophobes.

But even discounting Ukraine and Hong Kong, the numbers coming to this country are far beyond what most voters would accept, especially those who supported a 2019 Tory manifesto that promised to lower overall numbers. So what should the PM and his team do to redress the balance?

In the short-term, they have chosen a sensible route by reducing the number of students’ dependents who can come here. In the longer term, the Government should look at areas where it would be best able to reduce forms of ‘immigration dependency’.

One policy that would be both realistic and popular is investing in the training of British citizens who wish to pursue a career as a nurse or carer, as well as improving general working conditions in such industries. You could also achieve meaningful change by adjusting the criteria for such professions. Do we really need all nurses to have a degree to enter the profession? I can’t be alone in wondering…

Improving pay and conditions to attract more Brits to these areas would, of course, cost money – and any government that decides to take this route must be honest with the British people over the trade-offs and costs. But it may well be popular in ‘red-blue’ parts of the country which both care about the quality of public services and believe that immigration is too high.

Overall, immigration remains an area where there is often a lot more heat than light. Above all, politicians need to level with the public about both the scale of immigration and the action they will take to truly ‘take back control’.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert in social cohesion and institutional trust. His new book 'Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong About Ethnic Minorities' is published on June 15.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.