Read Paul Carbert's column as published in the Northern Echo.
The latest set of employment statistics highlighted the enormous progress that has been made in reducing unemployment in the North East. The unemployment rate has halved over the past three years, and the number of people in work is at near record levels.
An improving picture of employment across the country means that competition for skilled workers is increasing, and wages are now rising above inflation. A recent Chamber survey found that almost half of our members had struggled to recruit workers with the right skills in the past 12 months; and the Employer Skills Survey 2017, carried out by the Department for Education, reported that a quarter of vacancies in the North East were hard-to-fill because applicants lacked relevant skills, qualifications or experience.
When I have spoken to recruiters and HR Managers in businesses facing skills shortages, they are increasing their efforts to engage with young people before they leave education, and widen the pool of talent they have traditionally recruited from. Many of these companies offer apprenticeships (including degree apprenticeships) to school leavers, fund bursaries for students, offer work experience, and engage with local schools on careers advice.
The issue of migration has been in the spotlight recently, as businesses push for clarity on the Government’s proposals for a post-Brexit migration policy. Levels of migration to the North East are lower than the national average, but our region is successful at attracting international students – almost 20,000 came to study at North East universities in the 2014/15 academic year.
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was commissioned by the Government in August 2017 to assess the impact of international students in the UK. Their report, published last week, will now be considered by the Government.
Northumbria University pointed out in their submission to the MAC call for evidence that several of their full-time postgraduate courses would not be viable without international students. In addition to the tuition fee revenue generated, international students and their families spent £256 million with local shops and businesses in 2014/15, supporting over 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the North East alone.
The connections made by international students during their time in the region, and the role played by these students as ambassadors for the North East when they return home, helps to support our status as a net exporting region. A study commissioned by the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills of international graduates found that 90% of respondents said that their perception of the UK had improved as a result of studying here.
Much of the coverage of the MAC report has focused on the recommendation not to remove international students from the net migration statistics, which has been criticised by the HE sector. The MAC point out that this would be difficult to achieve, and would probably not make a lot of difference to the total in the long term. The real debate, and the cause of concern for universities and graduate employers, is whether the Government should have a target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
The MAC recommended that the HE sector and Government continue to work together to grow the number of international students, and introduce new flexibilities to the visa rules to allow international students to work after graduation.
Public opinion appears to support these changes, as a poll by ComRes in 2016 found that 70% of the British public believe that when they graduate, international students should have the opportunity to work in the UK and contribute to the economy.
Our members want to ensure that the North East has a globally competitive offer to international students who make such an important contribution to our local economy and to the skills businesses need to trade and win orders around the world. We hope that the Government will act on the MAC recommendations, and consider the proposals made by Universities UK to introduce a new Global Graduate Talent Visa.