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Open borders

What will it take to get the coalition to think again on highly skilled immigration?

The visitor from Mars will by now be getting used to the coalition’s instincts for policy U-turns: whether its the trebling of tuition fees; recycling its pledge to become the greenest government, ever, or felling forestry privatisation, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are developing a habit of saying one thing, then doing another. We think it is time they changed direction once more.

The policy area in which a U-turn is badly needed is none other than immigration policy. The coalition’s idea of limiting immigration from outside the EU to the tens of thousands threatens to leave the UK trailing in the race for international academic and other talent on which our economy and wellbeing depend, as we report in our Research Without Borders articles in this issue of Research Fortnight.

The coalition can’t say it wasn’t warned. A year ago Adrian Bailey, chairman of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, spoke of “a perception in China that Chinese students were ‘getting kicked out’ of the UK. As a result, Chinese students are now looking to other countries including the United States, Sweden, Norway and Australia.” Universities, he said, were “deeply concerned” about this. “They believed it was affecting their institutions in terms of both lost revenue and the ability of UK universities to retain their world-class status.”

Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge recently pointed out: “UK universities are losing top students and staff to other countries whose governments are more welcoming. Students from the Indian subcontinent in particular are choosing to go to competitor countries, with some UK universities reporting drops of 30 per cent or more.”

Following strong and sustained pressure from learned societies and from groups such as the Campaign for Science and Engineering, last July the coalition introduced an ‘exceptional talent’ route for up to 1,000 of the best qualified researchers. However, as Valerie Hartwich reports on page 21, too few visas have been granted under this scheme.

Worse still, she writes: “With visiting professors subjected to the discretionary power of border agents who often misinterpret or ignore the rules”, academic conferences have had to make do without their international speakers, “giving the impression that the UK does not value international collaborations”.

One country whose successes and failures the UK can learn from is Australia, as Lawrence Cram writes on page 22. Cram describes the measures that Australia’s policymakers have taken to assuage public concerns about increased numbers of migrants settling in Australia with some hard economic truths: by 2010, exports of education-related services earned Australia nearly £12 billion.

The UK needs to think in creative ways. As in Australia, many voters here believe that there is little economic or cultural benefit from opening our borders a little more. Instead of nodding in agreement, our politicians must take the lead and argue the case for more open borders.