The transition from the sunny beach culture of my New Zealand home town to the dark satanic hills of South Wales in the late 1950s when my parents came to the UK as part of the wave of Commonwealth immigration was probably one of the toughest challenges of my life. I was blonde, six inches taller than my primary school contemporaries, and spoke with what they regarded as a very funny accent. I stood out like a sore thumb. One of my first memories is of being sent home from school with a note requesting that my mother send me back properly dressed, as 'in this country little girls wear dresses not dungarees'.
While my experiences were relatively benign compared with many immigrants, I was left in no doubt as to my 'outsider' status. Nevertheless, over the years I learnt to turn this to my advantage, despite, at one notorious point in UK immigration history, being refused a British passport because I was not a 'patrilineal', ie, I did not have a father or grandfather born in the UK.
Hostility towards the immigrant is a feature of all societies, and is particularly heightened in periods of economic stress when people are pessimistic about their own and their children's prospects. At such times, it is tempting for politicians to play to the gallery and seek to limit immigration. The declared intention of the Coalition government to reduce immigration to 'tens of thousands' is one such populist response, and is as mistaken as it is unachievable.
Unachievable because most immigration is from the EU and so is uncontrollable without a major legal and political shift in our relationship with Europe. More importantly, it is a mistaken policy because we have a severe skills shortage that in the short term at least can only be met by highly skilled immigrant workers.
Despite high unemployment, businesses are reporting a lack of qualified applicants to fill vacancies, particularly for managers and technical professionals. A CIPD survey in 2011 found that more than half of employers (52%) believed that competition for talent was increasing, compared with 41% in 2010 and 20% in 2009.
Such shortages are starting to have a severe impact on the development of the knowledge economy on which the UK's prospects for growth rely.
Despite an expansion in higher education, home-grown talent alone cannot fill the gap, especially since during the downturn there has been a significant net outflow of highly skilled workers from the UK, primarily to Australia.
We urgently need more scientists, artists, designers, engineers and marketers to create new products, services and industries if we are to be globally competitive. We also need to stimulate the kind of entrepreneurialism and innovation to which highly skilled immigrants contribute. Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class discusses the relationship between immigration, innovation and creativity through diversity, cultural abrasion, and the tolerance of difference. He contrasts the economic vibrancy of cities such as London and New York, where more than 300 languages are spoken, with more homogeneous and economically static nations such as Japan.
The recent report Simply the Best? from the Work Foundation highlights economic evidence that shows the UK has derived enormous benefits from immigration, primarily due to individual skills, innovation, enterprise and increased consumption. In the US, research demonstrates that immigration stimulates innovation and entrepreneurship, with foreign-born founders establishing more than one third of Silicon Valley high-tech start-ups and comprising a huge share of computer scientists and software engineers employed there. There is also recent evidence (Learning Information Network, 2011) that suggests access to skilled migrants, especially in high-tech areas, increases corporate profitability.
One aspect of the immigration policy of the Coalition that seems to be particularly short-sighted is the decision to significantly reduce the post-study employment prospects of overseas students. The UK is a global leader in higher education and, as the second most popular destination for international students, their value to the institutions they attend has been put at around £2bn per year.
Additionally, international students favour the very disciplines in which UK employers are facing severe skill shortages: science, technology, engineering and maths. If students are uncertain about their immigration status and their ability to work post-study, they are much less likely to apply to British institutions. As a recent open letter from 40 of the 47 business schools in the UK made clear, such policies not only have a significant impact on the competitiveness, finances and reputation of UK business schools but also on the wider economy. UK business schools will suffer a serious loss of income if overseas MBA students go elsewhere, our businesses will find their recruitment pool diminished and they will lose the ambassadorial benefits that British-educated MBAs bring to international business relationships.
The UK should be an attractive place for talented and highly skilled workers and students, and we can't afford to cut off such a critical source of innovative and entrepreneurial dynamism.
While recognising there are other factors, such as the effects on communities and the British identity associated with migration, it's vital to our prosperity and global competitiveness that there is a U-turn from this Government over its ill-considered immigration policies.
Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director on various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on email@example.com.