Immigration policy shouldn’t deprive Britain of the skilled workers that the UK economy desperately need

Posted On: 
25th May 2017

Associate Professor of Management Studies at University of Exeter Business School, Prof Will Harvey, reflects on pledges in the Conservative Manifesto on immigration. He writes that "UK immigration policy needs to consider the pressure on jobs, infrastructure, welfare and other areas of the economy and society".

Conservative politicians have again promised voters who are preparing to cast their vote in the General Election that they will reduce immigration if they win. It is a pledge the party has been making for more than seven years and has decided to continue to make, even though it has not delivered on this aim so far. The need to address public concerns about the movement of workers from overseas and the impact this could have on their jobs means it remains in the manifesto, but if this plan is put into action it will deprive Britain of the skilled workers that the UK economy desperately need.

The UK economy will only thrive if employers can hire highly qualified migrants, particularly in healthcare, education, finance, professional services, universities, IT and engineering. Anything which makes it harder for them to come to work in this country will exacerbate short-term skills shortages and undermine the ability of companies to innovate.

The most recent Conservative government thought a way to address concerns about immigration was to charge companies £1,000 if they employed skilled migrants, with the money being used to train UK workers so they had the same type of qualifications. The Immigration Skills Charge was only introduced in April, but Theresa May is already promising to double it if she is returned to power, despite nobody yet knowing if this charge will achieve what it was designed to do. She promises that the money generated will pay for higher level skills training for workers in the UK.

It is wrong to assume that these migrants make it more difficult for UK citizens to get jobs. Giving highly skilled people jobs doesn’t stop firms from investing in the skill development of our own citizens. In fact, by attracting top workers with different backgrounds and skillsets, our education system, businesses and communities are benefiting from a unique source of talent which helps us to learn from people who have complementary education, training and networks. 

Imposing a £2,000 Immigration Skills Charge levied on companies employing migrant workers is tacitly saying that their movement is not important for the UK and its citizens when it is. Currently the charge does not apply to PhD-level jobs and international students switching from student visas to working visas and it will be important for Theresa May, if she wins the General Election, to clarify if this will continue. These talented people continue to help companies and institutions to innovate and become world-leading organisations.

Of course UK immigration policy needs to consider the pressure on jobs, infrastructure, welfare and other areas of the economy and society. At the same time, we must not alienate those current migrants working in the UK who are so valuable to all facets of our society, nor to those skilled people living abroad who have the potential to make an enormous contribution to the UK in the future.

We will need to make some difficult decisions, but we must be positive around immigration and compassionate to all those people and their families from abroad who are foundational to our economy and society.