Friday, March 11, 2011

Bhikhu Parekh on immigration and academia

Delivered from the floor of the House of Lords. Full speech link here. Wise words:

"My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on introducing this debate and showing how our immigration system is largely seen as unwelcoming to outsiders. He concentrated on how this points-based system is likely to affect artists, musicians and others, and how right he was to do so. However, I want to concentrate on an area that requires even more attention-namely, the way that tier 1 and tier 2 affect academics and researchers. As I understand it, the Government want to restrict tier 1 immigration of non-EU staff to 1,000 and tier 2 to 20,700-a reduction of nearly 20 per cent. I am convinced that that will greatly damage our universities and research centres, and I want to spend the next few minutes showing why.


Our universities currently have a non-EU staff of 19,000. Last year, it was 18,400 and the year before it was 15,650. In other words, it has been going up every year, for obvious reasons-there is a demand for it. Universities increasingly recognise that they need to compete with other universities across the world and that they are going to require highly talented people from outside. If the total cap is set at 21,700, universities, which already employ 19,000-plus people, will have to bear more than their fair share of the burden.

Tier 1 is the key route to academic appointments, and it is absolutely vital for professorial appointments. The non-EU academic staff are concentrated in certain areas: clinical medicine, social studies, business and management studies, various types of engineering and computer science. Many of these areas are expanding and will continue to do so, and they will need world-class staff. New and unexpected areas continue to spring up, as we saw in the case of nanotechnology. I can point to instances in social sciences and the humanities, where totally unexpected areas of research spring up. If universities are to compete, they will recruit people, and as these are new and unexpected areas, the talented people needed to do the teaching can come only from outside this country.

The numbers of people needed in unexpected areas cannot be predicted, let alone arbitrarily capped. The non-EU staff have contributed greatly in a number of areas. A quarter of our Nobel prize winners come from non-EU academic staff and they make Britain proud. They train the next generation of scholars and keep up the lead that this country has globally. They also attract foreign students and, no less important, they help to shape the academic and moral culture of our society. Talented scientists and others should not be seen merely in terms of the courses that they offer or the discoveries that they make, but also in terms of the contribution they make to the moral and social life of this country.

In my view, the restrictions that the Government propose are extremely severe and more severe than those of the United States or even Australia, whose points-based system we claim to have borrowed, although we have dropped some of the good points that the system has and added a few others that we should not have. The talented staff from abroad will not come if we put too many restrictions on their dependants and the ability of those dependants to work here, which is what we are doing. We cannot have a points system on the basis of UK experience, which many of these people do not have; nor on the basis of previous earnings because that depends on a number of factors; nor on the basis of established reputation because that takes no account of the potential of a scholar. Reputation is established over a period of time and, as Oxford and Cambridge universities and my own institution, the LSE, will tell you, you very often pick people on the basis of their promise and their potential, and you nurture them rather than go for fully trained and fully established people of academic reputation.

Therefore, I strongly urge that we should trust universities and research institutions. So far, they have shown a great deal of responsibility, they are closer to the ground and they are fully aware of the new trends in sciences compared with the Government. A bureaucratic muddle could easily arise if the Government start to set targets. Even as far as tier 2 is concerned, they cannot say that skilled people can come in only if there are gaps or there are no British equivalents. The concept of a gap or a shortage is extremely ambiguous and very puzzling. Gaps cannot be identified in advance. Even when they are identified, it requires years to train home-grown people. Sticking to a British-only policy, or looking elsewhere if no British applicants are available, will not work. If there is a gap and no locals are available, let us bring in outsiders.

Let us consider the concept of shortage. Shortage implies that there is a demand but no supply. That presupposes that demand is static and does not take account of the fact that demands are created. A creative mind, a creative scientist, can come along, open up new areas of inquiry and suddenly there is a global demand for a particular course or research and many people from all over the world begin to enrol for that or take interest in that research, and the country which started that research first has a global advantage. That is what entrepreneurs do in business. They do not try to cater to existing demands but they anticipate what people might like to have and create a demand. Indian restaurants did not open because there was a demand, but they created the demand. In exactly the same way, in academia and in research centres, talented minds come along, open up new areas of research, new interdisciplinary ways of looking at things, and lo and behold, a demand is created. Suddenly there is a gap where there was none before because something new has come into being.

The Immigration Minister, Mr Damian Green, says that we should attract the brightest and the best to fill job gaps. I say: attract the brightest and the best, then leave them alone and you will be surprised by what new gaps they can create. The points-based system is heavily biased in favour of high salaried jobs-above £40,000. That can happen in engineering or some areas of science, business studies and management. It works against social sciences. I do not need to point out to this House how many of those of us in social sciences, philosophy or international relations do not earn the £40,000 that is demanded for tier 2.

I end by making two simple points. Of course we have a right to control immigration; of course we must do everything to stop bogus students or those who do not want to do high level courses coming in. We must test their language competence and inspect institutions which recruit them so freely, but we need to remember that we need their money, partly for our economy and partly for our universities. To reduce the number of 300,000 students coming in by 120,000 is a large reduction which I think neither the economy nor the universities can bear without taking the risk of what happened to the LSE recently. So my first point is about students.

Secondly, as for academics and researchers in tier 1 and tier 2, leave it to the good sense of the university. Of course the Government, who are in charge of this country's immigration policy, must keep an eye on it, but it would be totally wrong to be too prescriptive. That would stifle the potential of our universities."

Let us hope the government acts on Lord Parekh's sage advice!

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