UK immigration's visa reforms are harming UK's soft power

A report by a UK parliamentary committee has warned that the UK's Coalition government is harming the UK's standing in the world because of the changes it has made to the visa system.

A report from the Select Committee on Soft Power says that changes to the Tier 4 student visa in particular are damaging the UK's reputation. The tone of the UK's debate on immigration too, diminishes the country in the eyes of people around the world. The government should also do its best to ensure that visa applicants receive a good service.

The Soft Power Committee was established to examine how Britain could best wield soft power. Soft power, the committee says, is influence based not on military power or financial wealth or trade but on less tangible attributes such as cultural influence or interpersonal relationships.

Education 'a major contributor to the UK's soft power'

The committee identified the UK's educational sector as 'a major contributor to the UK's soft power'. Britain's universities have an excellent reputation and attract many able students from around the world. 18% of students at UK universities are foreign. They contributed £17.5bn in fees in 2011.

In addition, those that study in the UK are likely to maintain ties with it in later life. Many national leaders studied in the UK including Bill Clinton of the US (Oxford), Manmohan Singh of India (Cambridge) and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan (Oxford). In 2011, 27 serving heads of states had studied at some time in the UK.

Many foreign children are educated at British independent schools bringing £750m a year in fees and some, such as Harrow, have established 'daughter schools' in China spreading British soft power and bringing export revenues.

Government should encourage greater educational ties

The report says that these educational institutions contribute to Britain's soft power by increasing British influence amongst high level people overseas who have studied in the UK. It recommends that the government should encourage greater educational ties with the wider world.

But, instead, the report finds, the Coalition government's efforts to cut the 'net immigration figure' threaten to reduce British soft power by discouraging international students from coming to the UK.

Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, promised to cut net immigration into the UK to below 100,000 a year from the then level of 250,000 a year.

Government policy is damaging UK's education sector

Home Secretary Theresa May presided over a crackdown on bogus educational institutions. The Home Office removed the Tier 4 sponsorship licences from 700 colleges thereby preventing them from teaching students from outside the European Union.

Mrs May introduced a requirement that Tier 4 student visa applicants should be interviewed online by UK immigration staff to check their English language ability. She also introduced greater checks on academic qualifications for Tier 4 applicants. These changes all tend to make foreign students feel less welcome as do onerous requirements to report to the police before starting courses.

The report says that the government has also allowed funding for its 'Chevening Scholarship' scheme to dwindle. Chevening Scholarships are designed to 'build a strong, international network of friends of the UK who will rise to increasingly influential positions over the years'.

Chevening Scholarships

There is a network of 42,000 alumni in China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia and South Korea. The government spends £42m per annum on Chevening Scholarships which is less than a quarter of what Australia spends (AUS$334m (£185m) in 2011) and just over half what France spends €86m (£71m) in 2009.

The report says that UK universities are also engaged in collaborative research with universities in other countries. This is useful in many ways, the report states. It is a form of 'diplomacy', according to the Association of Commonwealth Universities, allowing cooperation between the countries involved and can also produce technological or scientific breakthroughs. The UK has established 600 education and research partnerships in India alone since 2011.

The report says that Britain has a strong competitive advantage over other countries because of the English language which is the most widely used language in the World. It adds that the government is failing to properly exploit this advantage because it is underfunding the British Council.

Visa and immigration regime is jeopardising UK's competitive advantage

The report says that the UK's visa and immigration regime is putting all this at risk, as well as damaging British business.

Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-President of Universities UK, told the committee 'the changes to the visa regime since 2010 have had a distinct effect, in that our student numbers from overseas have been growing strongly for 16 years but this year have dipped by 0.4 per cent.

'We could have expected growth rates of five per cent, 10 per cent, 15 per cent or even higher, which our rivals are enjoying at the moment. There are a couple of specific reasons for that, such as the increased cost of visas and the complexity of getting a visa to come here'.

30 changes to the Immigration Rules since 2010

John Dickie of the London First lobbying group told the Committee that visa changes are also affecting UK business in general. He said 'We have seen something like 30 changes to the Immigration Rules since 2010 that make it very difficult for slightly smaller businesses to plan how they are going to bring highly skilled people in from abroad'.

The report therefore recommends that students should be removed from the UK's migration statistics so that the Home Office cannot reduce net immigration, a key government target, by cutting student numbers.

This would prevent students from feeling unwelcome in the UK, as the committee says that many do now.

Recommendations

The report says that 'managing immigration represents a highly complex challenge for any government' but says that the government must
  • make every effort to ensure that legitimate visitors can access UK visas quickly, easily and cheaply
  • present and communicate their visa and immigration policies with a level of balance and in a tone that do not discourage those who would add to the UK's prosperity by coming to the UK and supporting its business and trade'. The report seems to be saying that the government should consider the effect that 'talking tough on immigration' will have on audiences outside the UK.
  • Consider the effects that their visa and immigration policies might have on the UK's well-established reputation for academic and cultural cooperation
  • Acknowledge the effects that tighter visa regulations might have on UK scientists' ability to undertake international research collaboration

The government has yet to respond to the report.

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