The MAC review demonstrates that poor international student data leads to poor international student policy

While the sector awaits the government response to the Graduate route review, Alaa Elaydi and Ramita Tejpal make the case for sustainable policies grounded in better data

Alaa Elaydi is Head of Academic Quality, Data and Risk at BPP University

Ramita Tejpal is Associate Professor and Dean of Academic Quality and Policy at BPP University

At the press conference following the publication of the Graduate route review, Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) chair Brian Bell professed to being “baffled” by how any government could launch an immigration route without a data plan in place.

He continued:

So one of our strong recommendations, and probably the one that we’re most focused on in terms of the practicalities for the Home Office […] is actually going forward they should never launch an immigration route again, or indeed make major changes to immigration routes, without being very clear about what data they are going to collect, how they’re going to collect it, how they’re going to monitor it, how they’re going to make sure it’s the right data.

This should come as no surprise. Commissioned by the Home Secretary in March, the MAC had only ten weeks to carry out this “rapid review” of the post-study work route. And the review doubles as an exercise in identifying the glaring limitations and dangers of the evidence available – or unavailable. The high-level data available on international students is neither sophisticated nor granular enough to infer meaning, let alone to drive policy.

It is beyond doubt that international students bring billions of pounds per annum to the UK economy and play a significant part in the financial sustainability of our HE institutions. For such an integral high-stakes consumer group, it is highly surprising that the government and indeed the HE sector have not invested in gathering more sophisticated insight on the characteristics, backgrounds and experiences of international students.

For those already protesting that there is plenty of data out there on international students, think again. Granted, we have Home Office and Office for National Statistics stats on visa applications and issuances. And thanks to the MAC review we now have additional analysis that joins up Home Office and HMRC data to analyse migrant use of the Graduate route.

Data on international student home countries is widely used and shows a general change in country of origin since the early 2020s. This stemmed from an intentional government strategy aiming to diversify international student recruitment, addressing concerns regarding over-reliance on a single country for tuition fee income, and over-exposure to any geopolitical shocks that could lead to sudden drops in Chinese students coming to the UK. Providers subsequently moved to increase student recruitment from the Indian subcontinent and Africa, triggering oversimplified observations that students from these regions are more likely to bring dependants. It is no surprise that the Home Office didn’t like the sound of that – and went on to limit the ability of certain students bringing their dependants with them.

Strategies informed and driven by macro-level data, then, have resulted in glaring oversights and unintended consequences.

Compliance reliance

We do have HESA data on international students, and UUKi publishes annual snapshots sourced from HESA returns. There is, however, a lag to this data: the latest figures are from 2021-22. And when it comes to international students, reliable data is limited to statutory or regulatory compliance data. With so little granular data, much of the HE sector suffers from a case of what we call compliance reliance.

In truth, the lack of data on international students puts the HE sector on the back foot. This is evident in the incomplete representation of international students in key progression metrics (such as those of the Office for Students) reliant on the Graduate Outcomes survey. Financial constraints and perceived statistical insignificance seriously hinder international student inclusion in the survey. Moreover, within broader progression metrics, international student contributions may seem insignificant, further marginalising their impact. When changes to international student dependant visas were announced, universities struggled to model the impact of the policy change. In fact, the Home Office itself cannot seem to measure it.

University data strategies and learning analytics are rapidly evolving, helping to transform teaching and learning practice and student support. International student data, though, is not sophisticated or intuitive enough to help drive university-level interventions and national policy. And when it comes to recommendations for international student policies, we cannot afford to be shooting in the dark.

Getting on the front foot

A recent Jisc report about international student experiences and expectations gives a useful snapshot of how a little insight can go a long way. With a sample size of just over 2,000 students studying at fourteen UK providers, participants were asked six initial questions about their course level, the global area in which they grew up, the countries in which they were schooled, as well as age, class and gender. With students given assurance that answers are both anonymous and optional, the response rate to these personal characteristic and background questions exceeded 98 per cent. International students often fear the impact of voluntary data disclosure, but this research shows it is possible to gather data if we provide relevant assurance and support.

To give an example of the revelations that even the simplest granular data can reveal, a weighted statistical analysis of a small sample indicated that non-Russell Group institutions appear to be catering for older students from emerging growth markets, who may be choosing to study in the UK to further their professional development rather than to begin it. Despite its limitations, this kind of data on international students has huge potential, providing both insights and opportunities for further analysis. It tells us more about the human behind the digit.

As that study begins to show, international students are not a monolith and individuals from different backgrounds bring different benefits to the UK and HE sector. Grouping students the Home Office way, based on their home country, subject area and level of study, is superficial and reductive – a student’s Tesco Clubcard holds more sophisticated information about them.

“Brightest and best”

The MAC review has some suggestions about better data collection, but it’s not all plain sailing. One of the suggestions to the Home Office is to systematically collate degree award data by class. If used for regulation, this is a standard recipe for unintended consequences. We can already imagine the Office for Students’ grade inflation tsars coming to knock on the door.

The report also flirted with using international league table standings as a tentative proxy for determining the “brightest and best”. Last year, the MAC’s annual report expressed concern that growth in international students “has been fastest in less selective and lower cost universities”. This week, they admitted that “lack of clarity makes it difficult to judge the performance of the route against this objective”. They went on to acknowledge, for instance, that “an international student could be considered among ‘the brightest and best’ but cannot afford to pay the higher tuition fees associated with many higher-ranking universities”. It is a major issue that the brief from the government is not entirely clear – perhaps due to its inherent bias. At least the MAC has now identified the dangers of using proxy data to measure the supposed “brightest and best”.

A virtuous circle of data

So here we are, awaiting the government’s response to the MAC review which could determine the financial sustainability of one of the most important sectors in the country. The government, which requested the review, says it is considering the findings and will respond “in due course”.

And yet we are in this very position precisely because the perceived impact of the graduate visa route, either on universities or the broader labour market, has so often been based on incorrect claims and poor data. The constant rhetoric of crisis and abuse of the system paralyses growth and innovation – it is time for sustainable policies grounded in good data.

The HE sector will benefit hugely from better insight on international students, catalysing a virtuous circle of data for an important proportion of our student population. It will even provide hard evidence when politicians come looking for ways to hurriedly reduce migration figures. Because good data does not lie.

2 responses to “The MAC review demonstrates that poor international student data leads to poor international student policy

  1. Non-Russell Group institutions are overdosed on the money from PGT students who come in for short master’s courses. The truth of the matter is that universities got carried away with the boom in student numbers; this was never sustainable. By the way, I am one of those students who came here to do a master’s degree. What do employability outcomes look like for international graduates? Forty-nine percent of them are going into care jobs. This article is disingenuous and won’t hold water with any objective arbiter.

  2. “What do employability outcomes look like for international graduates?” is a good question. “Forty-nine percent of them are going into care jobs” is definitely not the correct answer.

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