Research impact: thinking outside the tick box

Published 2 August 2011 / By COMPAS Communications

Back to Articles

Academic researchers are under increasing pressure to demonstrate ‘impact’, and to disseminate their work in a way that makes a difference to the world outside the university. As recipients of public funding, we are encouraged to contribute to the ‘public good’ though how that is defined, and how impact is measured and evaluated is the subject of considerable debate. Nevertheless, public consultations on immigration policy, such as the current one on Employment Related Settlement, Tier 5 and Overseas Domestic Workers, could be seen as a valuable opportunity for migration researchers to use their research to have an impact. Attempting a considered response to this consultation, drawing on one’s knowledge of the field and available research, reveals both the importance and the difficulty of academic engagement in policy debates. More particularly it indicates the relevance of theory as well as facts and the pitfalls of engagement in policy debates which are ostensibly value-free but in fact deeply political.

This is not to say that the employment-related settlement consultation is a straightforward party political document. Much of the language echoes that of the previous Labour administration: we are once again reassured that the government recognises how immigration has enriched Britain and that we continue to want “the brightest and best”, a phrase that has from the outset been associated with the Labour initiated Points Based System. The Labour government too had started to look at the processes of settlement and naturalisation, and they had proposed the effective abolition of settlement in favour of a prolonged period of temporary leave (so-called ‘probationary citizenship’) before the acquisition of British nationality. The Coalition Government favours the maintenance of settlement, but for a select few only (‘the brightest and the best’ of course). They are proposing that it be available only for investors and entrepreneurs in Tier 1 and that it be abolished for all Tier 2 migrants with the possibility of limited exemptions. They are also proposing to remove or reform the entry route for overseas domestic workers, and to make this visa for a maximum period of 12 months.

What is sustainable migration?
There has been a shift of policy emphasis to ‘sustainability’ indicating some common trends in deep green and blue thinking around optimum population size and population growth. But what does ‘sustainable migration’ mean? This is a different question from asking how many migrants constitute a ‘sustainable number’. It is clear that the objective of government policy in terms of ‘sustainable migration’ is about reducing numbers, presumably to the ‘tens of thousands’ of net migrants. But if there is a wider concern about sustainable populations, then migration is not the only factor. We could for example ask: How does migration relate to other demographic trends? Is the current age structure of the population sustainable? What is the relationship between sustainability and consumption patterns? Is it possible to gauge sustainability at a national rather than global level? Numbers alone will not give us the answer to these questions, and nor will only counting migrants, let alone only counting ‘net migrants’. After all, as long as outflow balances inflow the country could have an ‘unsustainable’ stock of one hundred million migrants, or a ‘sustainable’ stock of five migrants, and the net migration figure would still be zero.

Should all migrants be temporary?
There is a determination to make settlement more difficult in order to ensure more people leave, thus, the plan is, contributing to falling net migration. Much is made in the consultation document about the ease of settlement. In her ministerial foreword, Home Secretary Theresa May claims ‘Progression to settlement has become almost automatic for those who choose to stay’. This is rather overstating, to say the least. It is in fact already difficult and extremely expensive to get visa extensions, let alone apply for settlement. As the consultation document mentions, there are widespread misconceptions that categories such as student visa holders are routinely eligible for settlement. However, what is true is that there has been a liberal assumption that there is a fundamental link between (legal) length of stay and the acquisition of rights – read any liberal theorist, from Michael Walzer to Joseph Carens. The thinking is that as a person spends longer in a country they build a life, develop friendships, and become part of neighbourhoods as well as paying taxes. In this way they contribute to and participate in communities and so acquire rights. Yet this fundamental relation, between length of stay and acquisition of rights, already severely strained, is about to be completely broken. One of the footnotes to the consultation on family migration suggests the abolition of the fourteen-year rule, under which those who have been in the UK without documents for 14 years can apply for regularisation. Unfortunately, there is no question about this in the consultation document.

Who are the 'brightest and the best'?
According to the consultation documents, we should consider facilitating the settlement of only the ‘brightest and the best’. Primarily this refers to investors and entrepreneurs it seems. Unlike the majority of migrants, people who have invested more than £2 million will be eligible for accelerated settlement. Is this the best way of judging the people who have made the greatest contribution to the UK? There is no mention of tax payments, nor of non-economic ways in which we all, not just migrants, contribute to society. The only exception is Tier 2 (for ‘skilled’ workers) where the government is also willing to consider making exceptions for those earning over £150,000, and for the social contributions of sportspeople, and ministers of religion.

Domestic workers do not, it seems, make a comparable social contribution, as the proposal is to abolish settlement for this category of visa holders. No comment is made on the gendered nature of all of these categories and why, for instance, it might be that a minister of religion is skilled but a domestic worker is unskilled. Or why an entrepreneur is contributing to Britain, but their domestic worker who is enabling them to go out to work (by caring for their children, ironing the clothes and cooking food) is not so contributing. Indeed, the document suggests that domestic work might not be work at all, and these migrants are rather ‘visiting’ and therefore do not need a visa as an employee. In a recent Oxfordshire case a Chinese woman visiting her sister was removed because she was looking after the baby and therefore acting as an ‘unpaid nanny’ and in breach of her visitor visa. So the provenance of the work is not at all clear. Indeed, the suggestion is that domestic workers should be given non-renewable visas that will allow employers to train people from the ‘UK labour market’. But will these people also be not-workers? Not eligible for minimum wage, sick and holiday pay, and not able to access an employment tribunal for work related grievances? While the government is concerned about stopping abusive relations from being ‘imported into the UK’ the danger is that by claiming that household work is not work it is creating conditions for abusive relations for both migrants and citizens.

The real questions aren’t asked
It is not that academic researchers have nothing to say to these consultations. One can comment on the data and challenge some of the less scientific assertions. However, the real questions, from ‘Do you want a sustainable population strategy?’ to ‘Why is domestic labour not considered work?’ are not asked. These are in fact the questions that affect us all, and they are not susceptible to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or numerical responses that are the consultation options. They are political and theoretical questions, which academics have a lot to say. Making the importance of these kinds of questions clear and demonstrating their relevance to people’s lives is even more challenging than responding sensibly to government consultation documents.