Skills trump culture in migration attitudes, BSA shows

Posted on 17 September 2012 - No Comments

The British public see skill and education levels as more important than cultural background in thinking about which migrants will contribute positively to the UK, a major new British Social Attitudes study shows today.

Most people believe that professional migrants are good for Britain, whether they come from Eastern European countries like Poland or Muslim countries like Pakistan, while strong majorities also believe that the settlement of unskilled labourers is bad for Britain.

The study also finds strong support for student migration, from all parts of the world and cultural backgrounds, as long as students coming to Britain have good grades. Students from east Asia with good grades are among the most welcomed, with 51% saying their settlement is good for Britain, marginally ahead of students with good grades from western and eastern Europe, with students from Muslim countries with good grades also welcomed, but by a narrower margin. There is broad opposition to admitting students with bad grades to come and study in the UK.

The new research published today in the 29th and latest edition of the authoritative British Social Attitudes study. The migration findings, reported in the chapter Fewer But Better? Public Views about Immigration by Robert Ford, Gareth Morrell and Anthony Heath, demonstrates that broad support for reducing migration is combined with significantly different views about various forms of immigration.

However, the study shows that this broadly colour-blind and culturally-neutral pattern of public attitudes to professional and student migration is combined with a clear ethnic and cultural hierarchy of preferences in family migration, with western Europeans preferred to east European migrants, and European migrants preferred to those from Africa and from Muslim countries.

Overall, the study shows that there is broad and sustained public support for reducing immigration, though this has reduced slightly since the 2008 crash, with growing concern about the cultural and economic impacts of immigration, with a particularly sharp change in views about cultural impacts since the 1990s.

The BSA findings would therefore suggest that the British government would be best placed to secure broad support for its approach of seeking to manage immigration numbers down if it can do this in a selective way, which reflects the nuanced views which the public take to different types of immigration to Britain.

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Five findings from the British Social Attitudes study of migration attitudes …

1. There is sustained and broad support for reduced immigration, though this has remained steady, and reduced slightly, since the economic crash of 2008.

“The proportion of respondents favouring some reduction in migration rose from 63 per cent in 1995 to 72 per cent in 2003 and 78 per cent in 2008, just before the onset of the economic crisis. Since then, there has been a small decline with 75% of respondents in 2011 advocating a reduction of immigration overall”, the authors write.

There has been a 12 point increase in support for reduced immigration between 1995 and 2011, but three quarters of that change (9 points) occurred before 2003, with a modest fall in pressure since the 2008 crash.

  • 21% of the population favour current (18%) or increased (3%) levels of immigration, a proportion which fell from 31% to 21% from 1995 to 2003, remaining steady across the last eight years.
  • 51% of the population favour large reductions in immigration, four points down on 2008 (55%), after sharp rises from 39% (1995) and 49% (2003).
  • 24% of the population favour small reductions in immigration, a proportion which has remained steady since 1995, with 24% then, 23% in 2003 and 2008, and 24% in 2011.

2. Professional skills trump cultural background for economic migration

63% say that professional migrants from eastern Europe are good for Britain and 24% that they are bad for Britain (+39), if they are coming to fill jobs where there are labour shortages, with net support of 33% if professional migrants are looking for jobs.

The figures are strikingly similar for professional migrants from Muslim countries like Pakistan, with 61% saying the settlement of migrants are good for Britain and 22% bad for Britain (+39) if filling jobs, with new support of +22% if professional migrants from Pakistan are coming to look for jobs.

57% say unskilled labourers from Eastern Europe who are filling skill shortages are bad for Britain (net -27) with a fall to net -51 for those looking for jobs. Those figures are net -54 for unskilled Pakistani migrants filling labour shortages, and -69 for unskilled Pakistani migrants looking for work.

3. Most welcome student migration – as long as students have good grades.

The most popular student migrants are students with good grades from east Asia, with 51% saying settlement of these migrants is good for Britain and 27% saying it is bad for Britain (+24), ahead of students from western Europe (50% good, 28% bad; net +22) and eastern Europe (50% good, 33% bad; net +17). Students with good grades from Muslim countries are also welcomed, but by the narrower margin of 43% to 33% (+10).

Students with bad grades from all of these background are seen as bad for Britain by broadly 70-75% of the public, with net scores of -60 (western Europe), -63 (east Asia), -64 (Muslim countries) and -65 (eastern Europe).

This would appear to clearly indicate that education and skill levels trump culture when it comes to student admissions.
There is strong support for admitting good students to British universities, wherever they come from, while the public want to be confident about the aptitude and willingness to study of those who come to the UK to learn.

4. The public have become considerably more sceptical about the cultural impacts on immigration, while most are concerned about its economic impact too.

While broad majorities want to see immigration reduced from current levels, opinion is more evenly divided about the overall economic and cultural impacts of immigration, but there has been growing concern over the last decade about its economic and cultural impact.

30% think migration is good for the economy (+4 on 2002), and 18% think it is neither good nor bad for the economy (-10), while 52% think immigration is bad for the economy (+9 on 2002).

34% think the cultural impact of immigration has been positive (-10 since 2002) while 17% say it has been neither good nor bad. A plurality of 48% say the cultural impact has been negative, but this reflects a sharp rise from 33% in 2002.

There has been a significant shift on cultural impacts – which were seen as a net positive (+11) in 2002 and are now seen as a net negative (-14) in 2011. There has been a less marked shift on economic impacts, which began at -17 in 2002 and have fallen to -22.
“The British in 2011 are much more internally divided about immigration than they were in 2002”, the authors write, with professionals and graduates continuing to hold positive views about the economic and cultural impacts of migration, while “economically and socially insecure groups have become dramatically more hostile”.

5. Cultural background matters more to views on family migration

While cultural background had a very limited effect in views on economic and student migration, this does more to colour views about family reunion. The study finds that the balance of opinion is negative towards family reunion migration, with region of origin and cultural background playing a greater role in perceptions.

34% think family members coming to Britain to join a western European migrant who has been here for 10 years is good for Britain, and 40% that they are bad for Britain (-6), but the net scores fall for East Europeans (-23), migrants from Muslim countries (-35) and migrants from Africa (-43), and are more negative for more recent migrants from all of these regions.

The researchers do note an “ethnic hierarchy” in reactions to family migration from different regions “with west Europeans regarded most favourably, followed by east Europeans with net support around 15 points lower, with Africans and Muslim migrants a further 12-20 points behind. White Europeans are consistently preferred to non-white Africans and Muslims, and richer west Europeans preferred to poorer East Europeans. Culture, race and economics may all play a role here”.

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