‘Migration mercantilism’ is an ill-advised policy
“Why would the Home Office want to include visiting students in its statistics? Most likely, the reason is because this is a category they can control easily”
Maurits van Rooijen, economic historian and chief academic executive at Global University Systems, draws parallels with historical mercantilism in overseas trade and the current political maneuvering in the UK that means international students face ever-tighter restrictions on studying in the UK.
History shows us that there is always a real risk that socio-economic common sense can get pushed aside.
For instance, from the 16th to the 18th century, many economies in Western Europe suffered due to mercantilism: the mistaken belief that governmental regulation of a nation’s economy, especially reducing imports, would strengthen the state at the expense of rival national powers.
Limiting trade actually did precisely the opposite, as it impacted badly on the state’s economy and hence on its citizens. By contrast, the economies of countries which ignored mercantilism prospered.
A similar issue is emerging today: migration mercantilism. Research has shown that an influx of people, especially educated people, to a country stimulates the economy and creates many new jobs. This is scientifically undisputed, but the politically convenient perception that foreigners steal jobs from the local population means that real evidence is ignored.
“The politically convenient perception that foreigners steal jobs from the local population means that real evidence is ignored”
At a stretch, if there were high levels of unemployment (especially in low-skilled sectors), some of the recent comments by the UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd and others would be understandable – but this is not the case.
Migration mercantilism quite simply does not make much economic sense.
The populist slogan “British jobs for British people” has now been moved to an even weirder level with the announced aim of reducing the number of foreign students. It reminds us of what happened in the USA, especially after 9/11. The Bush administration reacted to anti-foreign sentiments – which were focused on illegal immigration – by clamping down on overseas students.
Obviously, the one has nothing to do with the other. But it reminds us of the joke of the man who was carefully searching the area underneath a lamppost. He had lost his car keys many streets away, but since there were no lamp posts there he decided to look where there was light.
It is easy to realise that there is no reason for international students to be part of the immigration debate.
The OECD immigration figures rightly do not include international students, as they are only temporary visitors – and the few who might become permanent residents after graduation are normally the kind of people any country should be keen to keep.
So why would the Home Office want to include visiting students in its statistics, and subsequently target foreign students with further restrictions? Most likely, the reason is because this is a category they can control easily. As the joke suggests, foreign students are the ones who happen to be underneath a lamppost.
In a recent twist to this story, the Home Office now makes an exception for ‘high quality and highly demanding courses’. The rationale is that it acknowledges the importance of attracting the world’s best and brightest.
“Clearly, some powerful lobbying has been successful, and politically it makes sense – but the socio-economic reality is very different”
Clearly, some powerful lobbying has been successful, and politically it makes sense – but the socio-economic reality is very different. The strength of the education sector in the UK has always been its diversity, offering horses for courses, as they say. Oxbridge and the Russell Group institutions are extremely valuable (I happily declare bias as an alumnus of that type of institution) but it would be an economic disaster if they were to define or dominate education in any country.
The success of an economy depends heavily on diversity of educational provision.
It is still a common misconception that success in a career, business, enterprise, and life in general is correlated to academic gift. Academic gift is highly relevant for those who want to pursue an academic or research-focused career, but this is approximately just one or two percent of the nation’s graduates.
Economies need the world’s ‘best and brightest’, but these do not need to be academically outstanding. For instance, attitude counts for much more in determining one’s potential success in life (or contribution to the economy) than impressive A-level results.
It is understandable that the Home Secretary seeks to respond to popular sentiment. Politicians need votes, and hence they have to show they are in touch with society at large. But politicians also have a duty to serve national interests, and the two do not always go together.
Personally, I strongly believe the latter is of a higher order than the first; and history tends to agree with that.
Wherever one sits in the political argument, let’s please remember that migration mercantilism is an offshoot of a very misguided concept: migration mercantilism is simply the modern version of a nation shooting itself in the foot.