Targets. Setting them is easy, achieving them isn’t. At this time of year, no doubt millions of us have pledged to make changes in our homes, our lives and our businesses, but we all know that in just a few months’ time, and often much sooner, these well-intentioned but often unrealistic goals become too overwhelming and are set aside for another day – or another year.

That’s why setting SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely – is the first step in making your goal a reality, and the second is to remember that goals are made to be re-assessed and reset as you go through the year. The only thing you can rely on in the business world is uncertainty and far too many companies go through an annual goal-setting process and then tenaciously stick to these goals regardless of market or trading conditions. Successful business leaders advocate looking at your company’s goals quarterly and when your results and evidence suggests it, readjusting these goals. This is true not only of businesses, but also applies to individuals and even countries – which brings us nicely to UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s current dilemma – or rather one of them.

Official figures from November 2017 show net migration at 230,000. It is the largest decrease in net migration in any 12-month period since records began in 1964 and in stark contrast to the record high of 336,000 in the 12 months before the historic Brexit vote.1 Theresa May has pledged to reduce this further to just tens of thousands. In 2010, David Cameron set a similar target but 7 years later, this target has remained steadfastly unachievable and is a perfect example of how important it is to reassess targets to make sure they are realistic.

So far, against all advise, Mrs. May is steadfastly maintaining this arbitrary net migration target which has never once been met and despite coming under increasing pressure from her own ministers, including the Conservative party’s Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson and the former Chancellor George Osbourne who are openly questioning the wisdom of the net immigration pledge, Mrs. May refuses to reassess.

One of the most contentious issues when discussing net migration targets is the inclusion of students. May as Home Secretary, and now Prime Minister has always insisted international students should be included in the figures. The perceived presence of student over-stayers has driven her policy to increasingly curb student visas over the last seven years, which many senior Conservatives, including Liam Fox and Phillip Hammond, believe is driving students away, and causing immense damage to Britain’s reputation. Just last year, Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary warned of the potential damage her policy could cause to the UK’s £25bn higher education exports.

Previous estimates put the number of over-stayers as high as 100,000-plus, but the latest ONS figures now put this figure at closer to 5,000. In other words, only 3% of students flout the rules.2 It is hoped that this new evidence will intensify the pressure on Mrs. May to abandon her insistence that students be included in the net migration figures. In other words, it is time to re-assess and reset the targets – like any good business manager would.

There are real fears that the Government could lose a vote on this issue when MPs discuss the Brexit Immigration bill in the coming weeks. The Scottish Conservative MPs and the Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party have joined senior ministers from all the main parties in lobbying for a policy U-turn arguing “including students in the figures is distortive, counterproductive and sends out entirely the wrong signals” [Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party]

So why, in the face of such stern opposition is the Prime Minister refusing to apply what amounts to good common business sense to her targets? Why will she not re-assess and reset? “The position of the Prime Minister is clear,” her spokesman recently said. “The international definition of an immigrant is someone who arrives for a period of more than 12 months” and this according to Mrs. May, includes students.

To her credit, possibly, the Prime Minister sees the issue as a matter of trust, believing that voters would react badly if it appeared that the Government was rigging the figures to hit its tens of thousands target. Robert Goodwill, Immigration Minister, recently told a Lords committee: “If we took students out of the figures, we would be accused of trying to fiddle the figures. I think it’s important that we recognise that when students are here, they have an impact on public services”. This raises another important point: even if polling shows3 that the British public does not consider foreign students to be of concern, they still contribute to demand for housing, transport and other public services. This burden is consistently cited as a problem in the polls.

Mrs. May’s refusal to remove students from immigration numbers may also be attributed to a fear that doing so risks opening the floodgates to other exemptions. Caving to the arguments of universities could prove a strategic mistake for Mrs May. For example, one business lobbyist recently told the Financial Times that if Downing Street ever exempted foreign students from net migration, they would immediately argue that business people who enter the UK as long-term Intra-Company Transfers (ICTs) should also be removed from the total, given that they are essentially temporary.

Ultimately though, there is no obligation on the Government to have an immigration target, let alone one of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands. And if it insists on one, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory has pointed out that the easiest way to get close to it would be to stop counting international students — there were 134,000 of them last year — as immigrants. It is not as if there is public pressure to keep students out as most people in the UK do not think of foreign students as immigrants. Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP said at a recent hearing “Most people agree that students are a huge success story for the UK. They are a major British export”.

The opposition to Mrs. May’s policy is clearly strong enough to force the issue and defeat the Government when the new immigration laws needed for a post-Brexit system are debated, so Mrs. May will have little choice but to confront the issue. Will she finally accept the wisdom of re-assessing and resetting her targets?

Most people reading this, and indeed the author as a self-confessed, obsessive target adjuster, will no doubt find Mrs. May’s stubborn adherence to what are proving to be unrealistic targets, a business decision with no real basis and no chance of success. Any good leader would surely recognise it’s time to re-evaluate?

Will Mrs May? The answer for now is a mystery.


1Source: Office for National Statistics







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