The Light of Evidence

Published 24 July 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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Although COMPAS is probably best known for its migration research, the P in its name stands for Policy, and it is part of our mission to inform policy-making and public debate. As David Cameron has acknowledged (echoing the words of the immigration minister, Damian Green, at the launch of our Migration Observatory), “immigration is a hugely emotive subject … and it's a debate too often in the past shaped by assertions rather than substantive arguments.”

Along with the Observatory, the COMPAS Breakfast Briefing Series has been part of our attempt to bring the light of evidence to an area of policy-making too often clouded by emotions and assertions. Once a month, generously hosted in the last two years by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund in Westminster, we have invited migration experts to present evidence on topics of political import to an audience of decision-makers.

What is immigration policy for?

If policy-making in the field suffers from a deficit of engagement with the evidence, it is even more striking how rarely it is asked what migration policy is for. In other words, what do politicians and governments hope to achieve, or how does migration policy contribute to broader economic, social and international objectives? This question was the topic of our first briefing of the 2011-12 series, by COMPAS’ Sarah Spencer, drawing on her recent Policy Press book The Migration Debate.

The UK’s Coalition government has centred its migration policy on limiting net migration, and most other policy developments (such as tightening up regulations on international students or family migrants) have followed from this. But the rationale for a cap has been spelled out only briefly, and not always in the same terms. Some of objectives mentioned have included: re-building public confidence in the immigration system, ensuring cohesion, protecting public services including schools, health and housing, and reducing the burden on the tax payer.

Sarah argued for a need to acknowledge the breadth of different objectives that can feed into making migration policy, and to be clear that these objectives can compete. For example, reducing net migration may fit uneasily with the desire to attract the best and brightest in a knowledge economy or the aims of the higher education sector to promote economic growth. Humanitarian concerns, especially relating to children, sometimes trump the concerns which drive restrictions. And, most recently, the Office for Budget Responsibility has raised the possibility that economic growth and fiscal health may be harmed by reducing net migration.

Sarah did not argue for or against any specific policies or objectives, but rather for a substantive debate on what the range of objectives should be, the priority they should be given, and the trade-offs to be made. She suggested that there is scope for a sophisticated debate, given the complexities of public opinion – for example, the public’s greater support for some forms of migration (international students and workers with skills in demand) than others (including family migrants). Government, she suggested, could lead an evidence-based discussion, engaging with the public up and down the country, on the options and their implications, regarding what can and cannot be delivered. Strengthening the evidence base – and understanding the evidence we do have – is central to such an endeavour.

The Migrant Journey

Home Office officials are already engaging in important exercises to review the evidence we have. Jon Simmons, Director for Migration and Border Analysis in the Home Office Science Directorate, gave our December briefing, with a presentation of some of the findings from the Migrant Journey first and second reports and the Family Migration evidence pack  published alongside the recent family migration consultation.

The Migrant Journey produced an unprecedented analysis of how migrants coming to the UK under various categories of visa (work, study, family) differ in their passage through the immigration system, in terms of their propensities to switch categories, the length of time they remain and the proportions who go on to achieve settlement, giving us an incredibly rich statistical picture of the UK’s migrants. Looking at the half a million migrants given entry clearance in 2004, the research explored where they were five years on.

The largest group, 185,600, came to study – but only a fifth of them were still here five years on and only 3% had been granted settlement. For the second largest group, those who came to work on a visa leading to settlement, over 100,000, were more likely to stay, but still a minority: 40% were still in the system five years on and three in four of those had been granted settlement. Those on temporary work visas (under 100,000) were, unsurprisingly, unlikely to stay, with a tenth still here and only 3% getting settlement. Family migrants, in contrast, despite being the smallest group at 63,400, were much more likely to stay: two thirds were still here, almost all of whom had been granted settlement.

Jon presented the evidence, rather than the policy implications. However, these figures illuminate the choices policy-makers need to consider – for example, the inclusion of students in net migration figures, or the trade-offs between reducing net migration and sustaining family life.

Climate change

Two very different briefings explored some of the drivers of migration, both in the UK and globally, helping us to understand figures like those in the Migrant Journey data. Allan Findlay, of the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St. Andrews, discussed the impact of global climate change on human mobility and migration. Allan, a key member of our fellow ESRC research centre, the Centre for Population Change, was one of the many scholars involved in the landmark publication of the Foresight research, Migration and Global Environmental Change. This two year study led by the UK Government Office for Science, drew on a major body of evidence produced by several international experts to understand how diverse environmental changes will converge on populations between now and 2060; as well as the profound consequences for those who move and for those who stay behind, and also for the regions of origin and destination. Allan was involved in two of the reports that formed part of the Foresight programme’s massive evidence base.

In his briefing, he looked at the complex drivers of migration. Avoiding a simple framing in terms of push and pull and movements from A to B, he explored the dynamics of migration systems, and how these change due to factors like environmental crisis. His messages were that: immobility can be more of an issue than mobility (and rising sea levels can leave those who can’t move literally swamped or flooded, or without livelihood); short distance moves predominate over long range moves; migration is just one mobility response; individual migrants should be seen as part of households, with short and long moves by individual members forming part of wider family strategies; the poorest are the least mobile; international mobility is mainly to neighbouring countries; and social networks shape mobility.

All of these premises mean that climate driven migration is unlikely to create human tidal waves to the UK, but that migration effects will be felt in proximate regions of the global South. This means policy-makers need to be concerned less with managing migration to here, but with addressing the human cost of immobility there. In fact, if the UK faces significant migration challenges from climate change, it may well be from newly arid regions of Europe itself. In this context, what migration policy is for must include planning ahead for a range of possible futures.

The highly skilled and strategic industries

Jonathan Portes, director of National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), explored a significant tension at the heart of UK immigration policy. The weight of empirical evidence, he argued, suggests that skilled immigrants benefit the economy. In many innovation-intensive sectors, cross-border flows of people – and hence of ideas and knowledge – make important contributions to innovation. However, inward flows of skilled migrants may under certain conditions reduce the pressure on receiving-country employers to upgrade the skills of the resident workforce, reinforcing dependencies on migrants while leaving residents underskilled for innovation.

Jonathan presented NIESR research commissioned by the Migration Advisory Committee on the effects of new restrictions on skilled immigration as regarding the UK’s ability to meet ‘strategically important’ skill needs; and on the potential trade-off between skilled immigration and upskilling of resident workers. The evidence suggests, he told us, that upskilling resident workers, while desirable, will not by itself end the dependency of key sectors on migrant labour. Employers in high end sectors employ migrants for a complex range of reasons, including culturally-specific knowledges and competencies, and already invest heavily in UK-based training. Complementarity, rather than substitution is the better way to see the relationship between resident and foreign workers in these sectors.

If this interpretation of the evidence is correct, then there may not be a policy trade-off of British jobs for British workers versus innovation and economic growth, and politicians’ justification for limiting skilled migration needs to be more robustly articulated in other terms, for instance in terms of optimum population or in terms of the challenges of diversity.

Integration and cohesion

Three briefings in the series looked at very different aspects of migration, in particular its impacts on the ways in which people get on.  Will Somerville, Migration Policy Institute, Shamit Saggar, University of Sussex, and Robert Ford, Manchester University, focussed on the big picture. They reported on research conducted for the Migration Advisory Committee with Maria Sobolewska, also Manchester University. They define integration as how individual migrants’ trajectories in various social and economic spheres do or don’t converge towards the societal average – for example, whether their employment or education outcomes are similar or different.

Here, there is clear evidence that different groups perform differently – but the evidence is also highly problematic, as different, even apparently similar measures produce startlingly different results. This may be because the societal average against which comparisons are made is an elusive concept, and because policy makes such a difference to integration outcomes. In general, however, it seems that the different spheres of integration do not map on to each other – for example, some groups are highly integrated in the labour market but rarely marry out, others act in precisely the opposite way. What this suggests is that policy debates on integration need to be much more finely calibrated, much more granular, and move away from any generalised view of migrant integration.

Policy debates need to be more sober – recognising persistent barriers for example - but also calmer – given that the overall picture does not suggest that migrants are “not really wanting or even willing to integrate”, as David Cameron once put it. In fact, on some measures, such as trust in political institutions and a sense of belonging to Britain, migrants actually score more highly than “native-born, native heritage Britons”.

Turning to cohesion, the evidence this team presented also suggests a need for a calmer debate. They team found the actual empirical evidence of does not support any hypothesis that new migration or migration-driven diversity correlates with lack of cohesion, defined as how people get along with each other in their local area or neighbourhood. In fact, crucially, the evidence shows that it is deprivation rather than immigration that correlates with low cohesion. This briefing suggested a mismatch between migration policy rationales and real world problems.

However, new forms of diversity do create challenges at a local level, and it was this issue that was addressed in our July briefing, by David Robinson, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University. He presented evidence on local effects on cohesion and neighbourhood change. In fact, he found, the evidence is limited, leaving policy-makers too often reliant on anecdote and assumption.

David argued that the research that does exist shows that different types of neighbourhoods can be much more cosmopolitan, resilient or tolerant, others more parochial, brittle and inhospitable: context and composition matter. There is some evidence of certain deprived neighbourhoods becoming more cohesive as a result of new migration, while tensions are undeniable in other areas. Research gives us tools to describe these differences, but more is needed to explain the reasons for the differences. Again, the overall conclusion is that the panics that have driven cohesion policy making rest on a simplistic picture of migration-related change, and policy needs to better understand local dynamics to shape more effective interventions.

Polish migrants

Derek McGhee and Paulina Trevena of the University of Southampton, presented work they have done with Sue Heath, of the Morgan Centre, Manchester University, exploring one new labour migrant population specifically: Polish migrants. Their research, also conducted from the ESRC Centre for Population Change, was based on qualitative research: in-depth interviews with Polish migrants in several different UK regions, rural as well as urban.

Although the research did not focus on education, it emerged as surprisingly significant in settlement patterns and integration trajectories of Polish migrants. Schools were revealed as key sites of socialisation for the children of Polish migrants, but varied tremendously by classroom, across regions, child’s age and knowledge of English. Support varies too: with Scottish schools providing significant support, and less support found in rural areas in both England and Scotland. Strikingly, schooling can be a barrier to return: Polish schools are seen by Polish parents as tougher in terms of standards than British ones, and once their children are in the system here they are reluctant to leave for fear they won’t manage back home.

Children on the margins

The depth and quality of evidence in the Polish study was somewhat different from that presented in other briefings because it was finely detailed qualitative data, based on long interviews with migrants themselves. In qualitative research, you cannot be as confident in making generalisations about whole populations – but vivid stories emerge which show how policy impacts on everyday life. Social problems are brought back down to a human scale.

The briefing by Les Back, a sociologist from Goldsmiths, University of London, presenting work done with his colleague Shamser Sinha, was of this type too, and also related to younger migrants, in this case young adults with precarious status.  The research was the UK case study of the EUMARGINS project, which explored the inclusion and exclusion of young adult immigrants in seven European countries. This briefing focused on the consequences that the restrictions and regulations imposed on young migrants in terms of their daily lives and sense of the future.

The complex story it told was one of stalled lives and blocked integration, in many ways echoing the findings of a recent COMPAS study on irregular migrant children by Nando Sigona and Vanessa Hughes. As I have written elsewhere, migration policy based on the numbers game, and the punitive discourse of many politicians, are confounded by the messy contingencies of migrants’ lives as revealed in qualitative studies like these, which undoes the reduction of migrant lives to abstract statistics. Most importantly, it opens the door to a de-toxified debate on migration in the UK, something necessary if we are to move from hollow promises to rational, honest and evidence-based policy.

So, if we are truly to move beyond assertions to substantive arguments, to use the prime minister’s terms, we need to bring a range of different forms of evidence to bear. Academics and other researchers have a duty to play a part in this, bringing what we know into public light, to help inform decision-making, in the hope that better decisions might be made.


The COMPAS Breakfast Briefings Series will start again in October 2012. Series 3 will be supported by additional funds from the ESRC Knowledge Exchange Scheme. Further details on the programme and new venue will be posted in due course.