David Hargreaves says National is getting into deep water by trading off education revenues for easy access to New Zealand's job market for migrants

By David Hargreaves

One of the great difficulties about attempting to discuss immigration is that it invariably becomes emotive.

One thing that’s never objectively done is a constructive look about what the country wants from migration.

We should be having this discussion now, but we are not and we never do.

Let’s start with some very basic questions. How many people do we want in New Zealand? Do we want significantly more than 4.7 million? What about Auckland? Do we want it to have a significantly more than 1.5 million?

Okay, after we’ve answered those questions, how many migrants do we then need or want to come into the country in order to fit in with those basic population targets?

And then what sort of migrants do we want – and by which I specifically mean ages, skill-sets, aspirations and perhaps wealth?

If we don’t set out these basic ground rules – and we never seem to have ever done this – then ad hoc Government policy tweaks become the norm to suit the mood of the day.

I think this Government has used migration in a most cynical and actually lazy way to boost the economy (though crucially GDP per capita growth has lagged) in the short term. But in doing so it’s running big longer term risks.

The net numbers of inbound migrants, currently running at around 69,000 a year are eye-catching. But this detracts from the most salient point.

It’s not the numbers that are necessarily wrong or bad. It is how we are doing migration, courtesy of this Government. That’s what’s so wrong at the moment.

The wrong fit

Migration can be a valuable tool in covering essential skill shortages. But as the figures contained in this article show, that’s not what this country’s policy setting are doing for us at the moment. Surely if we were truly fitting migration policy to current job requirements our biggest inflow would be coming into the construction sector. But it ain’t. Not even close.

The chief economist at the country’s biggest bank ANZ, Cameron Bagrie, recently did an excellent summation of the current migration policies.

Bagrie raised his eyebrows at the massive surge in overseas students heading to private training institutions and polytechs.

I’m happier to go a bit further than a raised eyebrow. What’s clearly happening here is that people from overseas are using the education excuse to get into New Zealand and are taking up, in many cases, not particularly highly-skilled or onerous courses, which are then leading them into not particularly highly-skilled jobs – in New Zealand.

This works for the Government, short term, in the sense that education export figures are rocketing, as latest Stats NZ figures show (note the figures in the accompanying Excel tables 3 and 4). It also means by attracting people in from offshore to fill jobs that wage pressures can be kept down.

It’s just lazy

It’s a lazy, short-termist, strategy that is fraught with longer term risks.

The people coming into the country and taking these not-so-skilled jobs are doing so at the expense of unemployed New Zealand citizens who might, with the right prompting, be able to be trained up for such jobs.

Unemployment and its effects on people are not, in my experience, widely understood. Particularly for the young, a period of unemployment progressively saps the confidence over time in a way that the person themselves don’t notice is happening. Then the self-defence mechanisms cut in. The inward thought: “I don’t think I can do that job” is outwardly expressed as: “I don’t want that job”. Such defensive comments then tend to be taken at face value. This person doesn’t want to work. Forget about them. Yes, some people need a bit of pushing an prodding. But this Government is again being very lazy by giving up on these people and bringing in overseas labour to take the jobs.

A social price

There’s potentially a huge future social price to pay by not pushing people into the workforce and getting the work ethic into them. And what happens when, inevitably the economy hits a rough patch down the track and jobless numbers start to rise? You then get those already excluded from the workforce partly by the Government’s cynical use of immigration joined by more people. You can’t ignore people born in New Zealand. As a country we’ve got them for life. We are inviting huge problems by excluding some from being usefully part of society.

If the economy turns really bad all the migrants you’ve brought in previously to fill jobs might just simply leave – and then we as a country get stuck with the unemployable people who have been let down by the Government.

The other key risk is what ultimately happens to the education export business through what might be seen as the ‘commoditisation’ of it that’s now occurring. By this I mean New Zealand offering up qualifications of not necessarily the highest calibre simply so people can come here for not-so-skilled jobs. Quantity rather than quality. Commoditisation.

Low-grade education peddlers

The risk is we become known as a nation peddling low grade educational training.

Wouldn’t we rather be known for promoting really high-end degree courses? There is a danger that the proliferation of relatively unskilled educational courses could backfire and see the market for high-end, quality overseas students dry up.

Ultimately, I think the debate about migration needs to be based around how we do it, and not be fixated about the numbers.

The Government needs to be forced to re-examine its lazy, short-termist strategy. In tandem with a serious look at New Zealand’s migration policy settings there needs to be a very big rethink about how our tertiary education sector is structured.

Keep going the way we are and we risk serious social problems in future.