The prime minister is under mounting pressure to remove international students from the target of cutting immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands a year following the release of new figures showing that nearly all students leave the country on time.
The new data from the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics, or ONS, show that between 95% and 98% of students leave the country on time, in line with their visa conditions.
Previous official estimates had suggested a gap of close to 100,000 a year between those entering the country and those leaving after their course ended. But the latest figures put the number of students overstaying at 4,600.
The old estimate was based on a sample survey whose accuracy has been disputed by the sector and the new figures are based on data from Home Office exit checks, which were introduced in 2015.
Senior cabinet ministers including Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson are reportedly in favour of taking students out of the immigration target. But the Prime Minister, Theresa May, who previously was Home Secretary in charge of controlling migration, has consistently insisted on keeping them in to the dismay of university leaders.
The chair of the Treasury Select Committee and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the new data suggested that “the reasons given for including students in the net migration numbers don’t really ring true”, The Guardian reported.
The target of cutting migration to tens of thousands was a key plank in the Conservative manifestoes in the 2015 and 2017 elections and reducing migration was a key issue in the referendum on European Union membership.
The ONS report said the work of the statisticians across government suggests that recent cohorts of non-EU students are to a very large extent compliant with their visas in terms of departing or staying legally via extensions of leave.
“There is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay,” it concluded.
Currently international students contribute around a quarter of total immigration into the UK. Provisional estimates for the year ending March 2017 indicate that 139,000 immigrated for study, of whom 93,000 were non-EU nationals.
Following the release of the new figures, Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who led the department in charge of higher education in the previous, Conservative-Liberal coalition government, said: “We spent five years trying to persuade the Home Office that the figures they were using as evidence were bogus. But they persisted nonetheless on the basis of these phoney numbers.
“The consequences were very serious. I would hope they would not just apologise to the individual students, many of whom have paid large fees and even found themselves deported in some cases, but simply acknowledge that the figures are grossly distorted and wrong.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, said Home Office Exit Check report and the ONS student migration report “show that there is very high visa compliance by international students. The number of students overstaying their visas is a tiny fraction of previous (incorrect) claims.”
Home Secretary Amber Rudd on Wednesday announced that she will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to commission a detailed study of the social and economic impact of international students in the UK.
This could potentially provide further political cover for a change of stance on including students in immigration figures, but it would take a year to complete.
Jarvis welcomed the announcement. “This is an opportunity to build on the considerable evidence that shows that international students have a very positive impact on the UK economy and local communities,” he said.
Research published earlier this year by Oxford Economics showed that international students generate more than £25 billion (US$32 billion) for the economy and support more than 200,000 jobs in communities across the UK.
“International students also enrich our campuses and the experience of UK students, culturally as well as economically. Many return home having built strong professional and personal links that provide long term soft-power benefits to the UK,” Jarvis said.
Public backs student migration
The government’s current position on targeting international students in efforts to reduce migration does not appear to chime with public sentiment.
A ComRes poll conducted for Universities UK in April found that 73% of the British public would like to see the same number or more international students coming to study in the UK, after discovering the contribution they make to the economy and jobs.
The survey found that two-thirds (64%) of British adults think international students have a positive impact on the local economies of the towns and cities in which they study; and 61% believe that international students also have a valuable social and cultural impact on university towns and cities.
Three out of four also believe that international students should be allowed to work in the UK for a fixed period after they have graduated, rather than returning immediately to their home country after completing their studies.
Responding to the poll in April, Dame Julia Goodfellow, then president of Universities UK, and current vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: "It is clear that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. They come to the UK, study for a period, then the vast majority return home.
"But, while the UK government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers, adding to the perception that they are not welcome here.”
The ONS, on the other hand, argues that international students are a component of net migration because not all students depart the UK when they have completed their study.
Since the 1990s immigration for study for a year or more has more than doubled. Much of the increase happened from the early 2000s, reaching a peak of 238,000 in 2010.
Since then the Home Office has introduced numerous measures to strengthen compliance with its sponsored study (Tier 4) route for non-EU nationals entering the country and tighten conditions for sponsors or recruiters of international students, and immigration for study has fallen.
These measures have included the removal of the right to work for international students other than at higher education institutions (2011), closure of the post-study work route for new entrants (2012), a five-year time limit on study for bachelor and masters degrees (2012), giving immigration officers the power to refuse applicants if there are doubts about their genuineness (2012), reducing a sponsor’s acceptable refusal rate from 20% of applications to 10% (2014), and making sponsors apply for accreditation every year (2010).
Also, since 2010 there has been a shift away from international recruitment for the further education sector towards recruitment to the higher education sector. Four-fifths of non-EU nationals immigrating for formal study now apply for higher education.
There has also been a shift in where students granted Tier 4 student entry clearance come from. The share coming from China changed from 15% in 2010 to 35% in 2016 and the share from India fell from 20% to 7% in those years.
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