MAC rains on sector’s hopes

Over a year since it was requested by then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd, today the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) published its 128-page report Impact of international students in the UK.

Accompanied by 26-pages of annexes and 1,642-pages of c.140 responses (109 of which are named), it covers all levels of education and the whole of the UK, focused around the 12 key questions set by the Home Office.

The higher education sector has been quick to express disappointment as last night’s leaks to sympathetic press revealed that the big ask – the removal of international students from migration numbers – has been rebuffed. But there are some glimmers of sunshine, along with some new dark clouds.

There had been hopes that this report would herald a new, more welcoming tone to government policy on international students. Theresa May has been portrayed as the sole outlier – the lady not for turning, if you will – at the Cabinet table, wanting to retain international students within the government’s (largely pointless but politically symbolic) “tens of thousands” target. At the sector’s most hopeful end, the five “pathway providers” behind the Destination for Education campaign shared eight questions for the report the day before it was published.

Focusing first on the reasons to be cheerful, most of the report’s eight recommendations do at least partly provide the answers that the sector wants to hear.

  1. There should continue to be no cap on the number of international students, which sat at 438,000 in 2015/16, a rise of almost 30% over the last decade.
  2. The sector and the government should “work more closely together” to grow recruitment, with the committee chair Alan Manning – in a masterpiece of understatement – saying the two sides were not always “on the same page” at present. This feels like a missed opportunity given the report also confirms that the UK has become less competitive, with a “slightly” falling market share (rather than the big dip shown in other, apparently “selective” uses of data), the risk that Australia will overtake us for the second-place spot soon. The UK has no national strategy or recruitment target, and “less generous” post-study work options.
  3. The rules for working while studying, and the rights of dependents, should stay the same as now – with both similar to comparative nations.
  4. The window for switching from Tier 4 (studying) to Tier 2 (working) should be “widened”. Beneath the original fence-sitting language this appears to be a positive suggestion, but is a pretty minor tweak, and hardly a change that will persuade many students to choose the UK over the alternatives.
  5. The post-study leave period for masters students should be extended from four to six months, but with a “more thorough” review. Again potentially positive, but minor.
  6. Similarly, the 12-month post-PhD “leave to remain” period should be automatically incorporated into the original visa, subject to the student meeting progress requirements and/or course completion, replacing the existing Doctoral Extension scheme which needs to be applied to and paid for.
  7. Former Tier 4 students who’ve passed Level 6+ qualifications should be entitled to a two-year grace period in which they can apply out-of-country for a Tier 2 visa, under the same rules as current in-country Tier 4 to Tier 2 switches. This is some way short of the automatic switch (from study to work visa) proposed by Universities UK. Though better than the existing arrangements, it feels insufficient, given that the report states that visa extension numbers dropped from 45,000 to 6,000 after the 2012 clampdown.

Other reasons to be cheerful

International students are found to bring a “clear” economic benefit to the UK, with the 2015 Department for Education (DfE) estimate of £17.6bn of export value cited, as well as the 2018 Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)/Kaplan International Pathways estimate of £20.3bn. The report also quotes evidence that international students support local employment, spend money on fees and living expenses, and attract further spending from visiting friends and families.

Similarly, the report finds that international students cross-subsidise research and domestic students, with the latter perceive them having an overall positive impact, despite a very small number of concerns about greater demands on lecturer attention.

As highlighted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), international students are found to have “high compliance” with their visa requirements. The report finds that international students care about the quality of education and there being a welcoming (rather than hostile) environment, with migration policies “playing a role”. Those who do leave the UK after study benefit the UK’s “soft power” and help to establish lasting business/research links.

Manning concluded the press briefing by saying that the high demand for UK higher education should be built around high-quality education and reasonable opportunities for high-skilled work, not open to all and leading to low-skilled work.

One recommendation to rule them all, one to bind them

However, when it comes to recommendation eight, the question that’s dominated this debate – whether international students should be removed from the net migration statistics used as a target by the government – the committee said no. The stated reasons are that other countries include them, there’s no workable method to take them out, and it wouldn’t make much difference anyway.

The report says students should remain in official immigration statistics for population estimation and planning purposes, in line with international convention and the practices of “almost every other” country. The report reiterates that the International Passenger Survey (IPS) data – which it has been revealed was used since May was Home Secretary to exaggerate the issue of student’s overstaying their visas – is not accurate.

But surprisingly, even when pressed by your wonk correspondent, the committee said that of all the responses it received not one suggested actually how students should be removed. Apparently, the committee can’t see a simple and accurate way to do it, and after “giving it some thought themselves”, they don’t think it’s a sensible use of time. The chair explained that we have “quite good” immigration statistics but would need to estimate those people who either emigrate or switch to other visas and would struggle to find existing data sources. He said that although ONS have done “some useful work” and could conceivably build something around entry/exit estimates, this would be “a huge amount of work”.

Furthermore, a hypothetical exercise in the annex H concludes that even if it was done, it would be unlikely to make any significant difference to figures because in the long-run if they stay-on after studying they will stop being counted as students, and so it doesn’t matter if they’re counted as immigrants (on arrival/departure) or not while they are studying. Apparently when numbers are growing the difference – i.e. those currently studying – is only “modest” and wouldn’t make “much” difference. It seems confused to say on the one hand that growth should be supported, but on the other that similar numbers in/out mean it doesn’t matter.

Target culture

Despite giving May some cover on keeping students within immigration figures, the MAC was careful to distance itself from the government’s decision to use immigration statistics for a target or cap, as with the “tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands” a year pledges in the 2010, 2015 and 2017 and Conservative manifestos.

The report highlights that “many in the sector expressed concern that inclusion in the target contributed to an image of the UK as unwelcoming for international students. If there is such a problem we think it more likely comes from the existence of the target itself than the inclusion of students in that target … we do think there may be an image problem for the UK in some areas and the sector and government should continue to work together to improve the image. Part of that joint action would be to talk less about students in the net migration target as it is possible that the repeated discussions of students in the target is itself contributing to the problem … most countries do not have an equivalent of the IPS, nor do they have a net migration target and so the question whether students are included in it is not relevant in those countries’ policy debates.”

A colleague from a right-of-centre red-top jumped on the committee at one point, saying “what do you mean if the target is kept?”, forcing the chair to point out they had to acknowledge it’s a controversial policy, without presuming to comment on it. Perhaps this position was the most the committee could say, but simply saying that the government “doesn’t have to use” the statistics for a target (that they are recommending stays) seems like a bit of a cop-out.

Although it’s not quite the vindication of May’s lonely stance that some have claimed, you can bet there have been some rare smiles in Number 10 today. This has raised questions in some quarters, according to one senior sector source: “MAC’s very positive analysis of the impact of international students does not match up with their recommendations. It reads as if the policy recommendations were written by someone who was not involved with the evidence gathering, or chose to ignore it.”

New lines of attack

The report also provided ammunition for two other possible lines of attack on the sector.

First, that even though international students pay a £150 per year health surcharge with their visa application as well as value-added tax (VAT), the HEPI/Kaplan report suggested they use NHS services above this value. Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) figures suggest that younger people without dependents, a category into which very nearly all international students fall, use the NHS less than the national average. When asked by your wonk correspondent the chair admitted there is “no data” specifically about international students and that many will have private health insurance.

Second, despite the report finding that most international students who move from Tier 4 (study) to a Tier 2 (work) visa tend to earn a similar amount to UK graduates, it also finds that a “sizeable” group of post-undergraduate and post-masters students have “surprisingly” low earnings, and recommends further investigation. This is based on data from the Home Office certificates of sponsorship (CoS) and DfE’s longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO).

What’s next?

Also, in a week’s time, MAC will report on the impact of European Economic Area (EEA) migration on the UK. Some of this will include students although they won’t be treated separately. Of more interest will be the findings about university staff, especially medium-skilled technical and administrative roles. Highly-skilled academics are likely to be valued and given preferential treatment, though this isn’t guaranteed either in the current volatile climate. Expect the two MAC reports to feed into the Home Office’s delayed immigration White Paper.

Post-Brexit, MAC’s report finds that all international students (including those from the European Union) may require a visa, but that this isn’t an “insurmountable” barrier given other countries – such as Australia – have a similar requirement. It states that such a visa system needs to be “fit for purpose” and points out that leaving the European Union has “no upside” for UK institutions. And finally, of course, all of the above could be ripped-up as part of wider Brexit-related policy turmoil.

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