Last week, new data highlighted that an extremely low number of foreign students are remaining in the country illegally. The data, which is the first based on exit checks, shows that over 97% of 181,024 foreign students left the country in-time, a higher percentage than for work and visitor visas.
In previous years, Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, had accepted and loudly proclaimed that estimates figured roughly 100,000 foreign students were illegally staying in Britain, in reality the figure is less than 5,000. This estimate, based upon "experimental" data by the Office for National Statistics, was a central motivation behind a shift in the Conservative Government's policy to include foreign students in their official immigration statistics. For Theresa May, cracking down on the tens of thousands of students illegally remaining in the country, was a much touted means of reducing net migration numbers.
The difference between 100,000 and less than 5,000 is shocking in itself and even more so considering the consequence of what so evidently seemed an unlikely statistic. Indeed, this example of shifting facts helps us identify three strands of the British political system - The false immigration commitments that the government have announced over the last decade, the over reliance on poor data which offers political gain for the government, and the breakdown in communication between community and student groups and the government - which are simply failing. As a consequence, we are being left with policies that cause immeasurable harm to people across the country.
For a start, and it has been said many times before, there is a clear breakdown between government claims over immigration - both New Labour and Conservative - and the reality. Any commitment to reduce net immigration levels by 100,000 or cap immigration is based upon a founding assumption that the Government has the ability to control migration levels in such a tight-grip manner. Irrelevant of your feelings on Brexit, it is obvious that whilst the UK was/is a member of the EU and party to the free movement of people, the government could not control migration levels in the way that they purported to. Even when outside of the EU, it seems evident that in the 21st century, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible - with huge inequality between countries, a rise in forcibly displaced people, and technological developments which make large-scale migration easier - to 'control' immigration in the manner which the debate over British politics has assumed. Over the last decade, the British government has knowingly stretched the truth in order to cover up the gap between their policies and their manifesto commitments. The Conservative Party, in order to portray themselves as achieving their self-imposed targets, have obsessively sought new means of creating statistics which show they are reducing net migration, even if that reduction is extremely small and hugely self-harming.
Secondly, an over reliance on statistics, and often bad statistics, is shaping government politics. All governments want to find and create solutions to problems, however increasingly it does not seem to matter to the government whether those solutions are the right ones. In this case, Theresa May latched on to shoddy piece of data because it helped the government's position. The idea that 100,000 foreign students were staying in the country gave the Conservative Government an easy problem that they could publicise and then claim to solve. Consequently, the Government could create a façade of control over immigration. An over reliance on poor statistics, and especially poor statistics which can be propagated as both a serious problem and an opportunity for solution, is increasingly having a greater role in government politics.
Politicians oversell their ability to control immigration. In this breakdown between propaganda and reality, the Conservative Government uses false data to create problems that they can consequently solve. This policy surrounding foreign students over the last decade is the perfect example of this breakdown in British politics.
Perhaps the most serious problem in British politics, which this incident highlights, is the breakdown of communication between the government and ordinary people who, through their own personal experience, become experts in a particular area. For example, in this case, over the last decade, numerous student bodies, university staff members and general community activists have been loudly imploring the government to acknowledge the false premises of its policy on foreign students, and the horrific consequences. Every student knows that the majority of our international colleagues do not stay in the country illegally and every student has heard the terrifying stories of students in their final few months of study being detained in deportation centres like Yarls Wood or Brook House. The activism of these bodies has not translated into government policy change let alone a proper discussion. The government already has a solution and whether it is right or wrong seems irrelevant, whether it harms individuals immeasurably without achieving any benefit seems irrelevant, for at least it is a solution, and one which can be publicised during election periods.