UK’s immigration obsession wears thin with voters
The news of a 63 per cent hike in Indian students choosing UK universities over the previous year reflects Britain’s somewhat scaled down approach to the issue of mobility, transmitted during the General Election campaign and an emphatic Boris Johnson victory.
- The Conservative party is showing a gradual shift on its view on immigration under the leadership of Boris Johnson.
- Opinion polls reflect that the UK is becoming generally more positive and less concerned around migration.
- Home Secretary Priti Patel recently unveiled plans for a fast-track “NHS visa” to attract medical professionals for the NHS.
- The success of the reinstated post-study work visa is reflected in the 63 per cent hike registered in recent student numbers.
The UK’s Conservative Party led government in recent years has been quite stubbornly obsessed with the issue of immigration, with a myopic focus on numbers rather than a balanced perspective on what a globally mobile student and professional population has to offer.
However, a subtle shift in the narrative is gradually taking shape as the Tory manifesto for the December 12 General Election dropped the central pledge of bringing down annual immigrant numbers to the tens of thousands – a target the party has consistently failed to meet. Alongside the conspicuously absent reference to the arbitrary target, there is the prospect of a new Australian-style points-based visa system to be put in place to attract the “brightest and best” from around the world.
This subtle policy shift is to do as much with a change of guard from Theresa May to Boris Johnson as Tory leader as it is with the central Brexiteer theme of an end to the European Union’s (EU) freedom of movement rules once the UK has made its exit from the 28-member economic bloc. The change has been repeatedly sold as a levelling of the playing field, which would impose similar visa norms on citizens of all countries.
“An Australian-style points-based immigration system gives us control over who can come to the country. We will be able to attract the best and the brightest and bring down overall numbers,” said Priti Patel, home secretary in the Boris Johnson led Tory government, on the campaign trail.
And, that theme continued to run throughout the campaign as she went on to unveil plans for a fast-track “NHS visa” to attract much-needed medical professionals for the UK’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS).
The features of the proposed NHS Visa include fees halved from the current £928 to £464; a fast-track process for applicants with a guaranteed decision within two weeks; preferential treatment in the new system with extra points awarded for anyone coming to work in the NHS; and payment support in the form of applicants being able to pay back the cost of the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) via their salary.
The IHS is imposed on anyone in the UK on a work, study or family visa for longer than six months in order to raise additional funds for the NHS. It was introduced in April 2015 and recently doubled from £200 to £400 annually. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO), the UK’s largest representative body for doctors from India, has been consistently lobbying the UK Home Office for a rethink over the charge on medical professionals who already contribute to the NHS.
Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals from India are often referred to as the “backbone” of the UK’s healthcare system as thousands have taken up critical posts across hospitals and clinics in the country. But there has been a disconnect between this reality and the government’s obsession with numbers so far.
Students are another category that fell prey to this short-sighted approach, with India registering a freefall in numbers after the UK had withdrawn its post-study visa offer to allow graduates to gain crucial work experience at the end of their university degree. This changed recently with an announcement from the Johnson government of reinstituting this post-study offer, the impact of which can already be seen in the numbers.
The latest statistics released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that 30,550 Indian students received a Tier 4 study visa for the year ending September 2019, up from nearly 18,730 the previous year. This marks a 63 per cent hike, celebrated as “remarkable” by UK authorities.
“This is now the third consecutive year in which the numbers have increased. It is important to us, because these young leaders of tomorrow will reinforce the living bridge that connects India and the UK,” said Sir Dominic Asquith, the UK High Commissioner to India.
Overall, there is a palpable shift in the way the immigration issue is being perceived and that is also largely down to much bigger concerns taking centre-stage in the psyche of the UK electorate. In an election ruled by Brexit and Britain’s future relationship with the EU, experts have concluded a definitive shift since the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
“Since the referendum, migration has fallen in salience dramatically as an issue. This is the first election in some time when migration has not been an absolutely core issue,” said Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank.
In fact, there is a view reflected in opinion polls of the UK becoming generally more positive and less concerned around migration.
“The reason is that a lot of Leavers are expecting greater control,” explains Matthew Goodwin, Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme, at Chatham House.
India has been among the countries that has stood firm on student and professional mobility being at the heart of a global worldview. And, it is inevitable that the UK’s hopes for striking a lucrative post-Brexit trade agreement with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies cannot be divorced from the issue of access for its nationals.
Boris Johnson is on record as saying: “What we will have is a controlled system where we remain open to beauticians from France or scientists from India or America… we will continue to be open to the world that is subject to democratic control.”
With Boris Johnson winning an emphatic mandate in the General Election, the verdict should mark a turning point for the UK’s turbulent grip on the issue of immigration and pave the way for the UK Prime Minister to put his post-Brexit plans into action.