Given how much the government is struggling to actually leave the European Union it should come as no surprise that it also struggles with key areas of policy that Brexit brings to the front and centre of the stage.
Immigration policy is one prominent example and an area where the government still lurches from one idea to another.
News this week that EU students could be required to pay substantially higher UK university fees sparked alarm among politicians and universities. EU nationals currently pay the same level of tuition fees as UK students, but the education secretary Damian Hinds has floated the idea of ending financial support for EU citizens from 2021. Chancellor Philip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark are understood to be bitterly opposed, and yesterday education minister Chris Skidmore attempted to row back, telling MPs that no decision has yet been taken. He went on to lament the “deeply regrettable” leak to Buzzfeed news, which first reported the proposal.
At first glance, putting up financial barriers to limit the number of EU nationals who come to study in our universities seems like a needlessly provocative and damaging idea that would almost certainly trigger a tit-for-tat impact on UK students seeking to study in the EU. However, since Brexit (if it happens) will offer a reset button on established policies – including the current “home fees status” afforded to EU students – it is worth considering alternative approaches.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has proposed diverting some of the taxpayer subsidy to non-EU citizens from developing countries. He asks, why subsidise the relatively wealthier European undergraduates at the expense of bright Indian or Nigerian applicants? Seeking equal treatment for immigrants regardless of where they come from was a key argument made by some (though not all) Brexiteers.
A paper published by the centre-right think tank FREER advocates precisely this approach and is worthy of government consideration. The author, Dr David van Rooyen, argues for a liberal post-Brexit immigration regime under which “eligibility would no longer depend on country of origin – treating EU and non-EU migrants equally.” He also advocates doing away with the requirement to have secured employment or meet a minimum salary, savings or qualification level while significantly reducing access to welfare.
This is bold, radical thinking but unfortunately the current government has absolutely no capacity to embrace such ideas.
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