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Learning hard lesson of Tory immigration stance

The UK Government's immigration policy is undeniably influenced by Conservative fears about the threat posed by Ukip.

The Prime Minister has talked of the need for strong measures to stem supposedly "vast migrations" of people from eastern Europe to wealthier western countries. A much-heralded influx of Romanians and Bulgarians on January 1 did not materialise, of course, but the Government is still desperate to show it means business when it comes to driving down immigration, so much so that it was reluctant to allow in refugees from war-torn Syria under a UN scheme, apparently because it could impact negatively on the immigration figures.

It appears to have been embarrassed into a change of heart by Labour. When a desire to trumpet falling immigration figures becomes more important than compassion to the traumatised and dispossessed, the result is a government pandering to xenophobic elements.

Scottish Education Secretary Michael Russell suggests this is not the only way in which good sense has been sacrificed in a bid to appease such forces. He highlights official figures showing that the number of students from India at Scottish higher education institutions has halved since the Coalition came to power.

There have been rises of 4% in the numbers of Chinese and US students, but it would be worrying if tough rules on immigration were putting off talented overseas students from studying in this country. The reputation of universities depends on their ability to attract the brightest and best. Mr Russell is understandably concerned. Yet it is not only the immigration rules that are having a deterrent effect on students from elsewhere. Earlier this week, it emerged that the majority of Scottish higher education institutions have also experienced a drop in students from the rest of the UK, due, it is thought, to the comparatively higher cost of tuition for those students in Scotland compared to many English institutions.

The SNP says in its White Paper on independence that it would continue to charge tuition to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland if Scotland were independent but a former EU education commissioner insisted last week that this would be illegal. It could hardly be called welcoming.

The Scottish Government rightly uses different language on immigration to that of the UK Government, highlighting the need for immigrants to power the economy given that the indigenous population is ageing fast, and Mr Russell hopes his stance will win support for the independence cause. However, the recently published Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows that 47% of Scots are concerned about eastern European migration, hinting at a cooler attitude towards immigration among voters than Scottish ministers might like.

Immigration is being used for political reasons, but Mr Russell is still correct to highlight the potential risks to Scottish higher education of distasteful Westminster rhetoric.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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