UK immigration figures fall

The latest UK immigration figures
show the lowest net migration
level in four years.

The latest UK immigration figures from the Office of National Statistics show a decline in net migration, suggesting the Government's controversial measures are finally starting to take effect, but is the news it as positive as it sounds?

The Conservative-led coalition Government has made cutting net migration to the UK one its primary indicators of success since being elected in 2010 after the previous Labour government allowed figures to reach record highs by not preventing UK immigration from the European Union. The Conservative Party made reducing net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the 'tens of thousands' by the end of the current parliament.

Labour has since admitted that they were too lax on immigration policies and have promised a tougher stance should they manage to oust the coalition in 2015. In the meantime, the coalition has made significant changes to UK visa and immigration policy.

However, as the UK is a member of the European Union, the coalition's only option to reduce net migration has been to target non-EU migrants and international students. Post study work rights have been removed this year and salary thresholds and application limits have been introduced.

The Government has repeatedly claimed their changes come as part of efforts to clampdown on abuse of the student visa system, preventing migrants from entering the country on student visas and working instead of studying.

The changes have had their critics, especially those affecting international students; critics argue international students eventually leave and should therefore not be included in net migration figures. The UK is also a world leader in the international education industry contributing billions each year to the British economy.

The critics' cause has only been strengthened as successive ONS reports have revealed only negligible drops in net migration figures despite falls in student visa applications. However, the most recent report has become the first to buck that trend, suggesting the changes are finally starting to take effect.

Four year low and tough policies

The latest figures, released this week, have shown a drop in net migration from 242,000 to 183,000 in the year to March 2012, marking the first time net migration has fallen below 200,00 since 2008-09 and the lowest level of people moving to the UK since 2004.

The reduction has largely been attributed to a combination of a fall in international students and a rise in people leaving the UK - from 108,000 to 127,000.

The figures have been welcomed by Immigration Mark Harper who said the figures proved the Government was bringing immigration 'back under control'.

"Our tough policies are taking effect and this marks a significant step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament," the minister said.

"At the same time, we continue to attract the brightest and best: these figures show that there has been a small increase in the number of sponsored student visa applications for the university sector."

Anti-immigration advocate Migration Watch UK also welcomed the figures.

"We can now see the first effects of the Government's measures to reduce immigration," said Chairman Sir Andrew Green.

"There is a distance to go but they are on the right track."

Counter-productive changes?

While most commentators agree that net migration to the UK needs to be reduced, the most recent figures have only served to fuel critics’ argument that the British Government cannot afford to make it harder for international students to study in the UK given their huge contribution to the British economy.

Earlier this week, Mayor of London Boris Johnson said the Government was 'sending out the wrong signal' to prospective students and has since written to the Home Secretary Theresa May and Business Secretary Vince Cable to urge them to remove international students from net migration figures.

A spokesperson for left-leaning think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the changes would come at a 'significant economic cost'.

"Steps to reduce abuse of the student visa system are welcome but if the government's net migration target is to be met, they also need there to be a dramatic fall in the numbers of genuine students," said the IPPR's Associate Director Sarah Mulley.

"The irony is that the impacts on net migration will only be short-lived because most students stay only for a short time. Reduced immigration today means reduced emigration in a year or two's time, which could see net migration rise again."

- Dominic Ladden-Powell is the Online Editor for the UK Visa Bureau.