It’s taken the near-breakdown of Britain’s borders to properly debate mass migration

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak's crackdown on international student visas could put British universities under pressure - Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

“The economy has turned a corner…the plan is working, and we must stick to it”, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, triumphantly tweeted last week in response to better-than-expected data on the economy.

It was a rare piece of positive news amid the raging sea of despair, so no-one could blame him for wanting to celebrate. But, I thought, what plan, and working for who?

Nowhere is the absence of a plan that is delivering in the way voters hoped more apparent than on migration.

Small boat crossings are higher so far in 2024 than ever recorded at the same point before in the year, and authorised, or legal, migration has also been hitting hitherto undreamt-of records.

It’s small boats that tend to grab the headlines, but it is these legal routes that supply the vast majority of migrants, adding to the population the equivalent of a medium-sized city such as Leeds each year at the current rate. Was this what Brexit was meant to deliver?

The great irony is that the post-Brexit immigration regime now in operation is broadly what Leave campaigners had promised.

Yet in practice it has succeeded only in replacing relatively high levels of net migration from Europe with still higher amounts of it from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. This surely can never have been the plan.

There are many ways in which people can migrate to these shores, both authorised and unauthorised, but two of the main “legal” ones are the so-called “graduate route” and the “health and social care route”.

Both channels of entry have witnessed an explosion in numbers since the end of the pandemic, piling further pressure on already stretched social services, schools, hospitals and housing.

In part, this was quite deliberate. Under the UK’s International Education Strategy, launched in March 2019, the Government sought to boost education exports to £35bn per year and set a target of 600,000 international students studying in the UK by 2030.

As an inducement, overseas students were given the right both to bring dependants with them, and to work in the UK for at least two years after completing their studies.

It worked only too well. There were 114,000 graduate visas issued last year, and a further 30,000 visas for their dependants. In total, the number of overseas students already exceeds the 600,000 target.

In a report published this week, the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), insists that the scheme has broadly achieved what it set out to do, and finds no evidence of “significant abuse”.

But this depends on what you call abuse. Certainly there is widespread evidence of the route being used not primarily for study, but as a backdoor way into the UK jobs market and eventual residency. Many universities are selling not education but work visas.

Realising its peril, the Government has belatedly cracked down and, starting from the beginning of this year, greatly restricted the right to bring dependants in most cases. The effect has already been marked.

According to a MAC review of the graduate route published this week, early indications suggest a 63pc reduction in the number of deposits paid for the September 2024 intake by international postgraduate applicants. The deterrent effect on undergraduate courses is at this stage less clear.

Even so, there is no shortage of calls for the Government to go much further. In a report for the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, the former ministers Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien challenge the whole notion that migration of the type encouraged by the graduate route is economically and fiscally beneficial, and demand that the scheme be abolished in its entirety, including in most cases removal of the right to stay and work after the completion of studies.

It’s good that we are finally having this debate, though perhaps not so good that it has taken an almost complete breakdown in efforts to control our borders to bring matters to a head. Just to repeat the point, this is not what Brexit was supposed to deliver. Whatever the plan was back then, it is very definitely not working.

Yet it is equally important to move with caution and with our eyes wide open. As the MAC points out, there are two inevitable consequences of further restrictions. One is that the Government is likely to fail in the targets set out in the International Education Strategy, including a higher education sector worth £35bn a year in exports.

Most universities have, moreover, come to lean heavily on the fees paid by overseas students, which are typically two to three times higher than for domestic students. Ending the scheme is likely to lead to further financial difficulties and in some cases outright closure.

Nor is it just the globally lower-ranked universities that would be affected. The head of one Russell Group college recently told me, in a reference to the separate problem of deteriorating geopolitical relations, that his college would be “dead without our annual intake of Chinese students”.

Some of the same points can be made about the health and social care scheme, where the attractions in terms of freedom to bring dependants and length of visa are even greater.

Failure to fund these sectors adequately has made them overly dependent on immigration to keep them going. For many British workers, social care is too poorly paid to make it an attractive career option.

In considering the trade-offs, we need to ask ourselves a number of fundamental questions. Do we actually need a university sector of such size and variable quality? Would it in practice be such a hardship if domestic fees were raised to a level which made the better universities viable in their own right without the need to take in huge numbers of overseas applicants?

Is it remotely sustainable to persist with a situation where nearly 50pc of the cohort spend three years of their lives in pursuit of a degree that in many cases will not buy them the highly paid jobs they aspire to?

Might it not actually be a better use of resources if more school leavers were diverted into today’s immigrant-dependent growth sectors such as health and social care?

In curtailing immigration, we obviously don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Getting the balance right, so that Britain can retain a globally competitive universities sector that attracts the brightest and the best, is fiendishly complex.

It is also important to recognise that getting the numbers down will inevitably involve higher costs – for university education, for social care and for health care. Immigration is the cheaper option.

Yet it is equally important to recognise that a failure to tackle mass migration in a pre-emptive, considered and effective way carries with it a real risk of public backlash, and eventually of more extreme, populist solutions.

One thing is for sure – right now the system isn’t working.