This article is more than 7 years old

Why students should be included in net migration figures

With the debate over international students front and centre of the HE Bill's endgame in Parliament, Ant Bagshaw argues that the political debate over the issue has too often missed the nuance of the policy.
This article is more than 7 years old

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

Should we invite international students to study in the UK? Yes. Should they be warmly welcomed and treated fairly? Yes. When they’ve finished their studies, should we invite them to stay on and contribute to our national economic and social life? Yes. Should we include them when we count the numbers of people who come to and leave the country? Yes.

The last answer may be counter-intuitive in the context of the HE sector’s campaigning on the issue, but this question is critical – the future of the Higher Education and Research Bill may hinge on it as the government faces defeat on this issue. And Theresa May only yesterday reiterated her commitment to reducing net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ – the line that has haunted the sector for years, and one which may well find itself in the Conservative Party’s manifesto in the coming election.  The debate also draws on rival polls – Universities UK’s which claims that only 22% of voters believe students should be counted as migrants, but an Independent/Sunday Mirror poll last weekend showed 49% thought students should be (with 30% against).

The latest debate in Parliament centres on an amendment to the Bill proposed by David Hannay, and agreed by the House of Lords (313 to 219 with a few Conservatives breaking the whip, including David Willetts) which says the following:

(1) The Secretary of State has a duty to encourage international students to attend higher education providers covered by this Act, and UKRI must take every possible opportunity to encourage and facilitate the maximum co-operation between British higher education and research establishments and those based outside the UK, in particular with projects and programmes funded by the European Union.

(2) The Secretary of State shall ensure that no student, either undergraduate or postgraduate, who has received an offer to study at such a higher education provider, be treated for public policy purposes as a long term migrant to the UK, for the duration of their studies at such an establishment.

(3) Persons, who are not British citizens, who receive an offer to study as an undergraduate or postgraduate, or who receive an offer of employment as a member of academic staff at a higher education provider, shall not, in respect of that course of study, or that employment, be subject to more restrictive immigration controls or conditions than were in force for a person in their position on the day on which this Act was passed.

The issues at stake are both practical and political. Counting people in and out sounds simple, but has proved pretty complicated. The Home Office is working on improving the accuracy of its recording methods and doing so means moving to ‘exit checks’ as a way of recording individuals rather than the numbers being derived from the flawed International Passenger Survey. If the practical issues were overcome, as the Office for National Statistics aims to do, that would be only part of the solution. That doesn’t solve the political problem.

There’s widespread agreement that international students are essential to the economic and cultural vitality of the UK’s universities and that they make a major contribution to wider society and the economy. The government maintains that there is no restriction on the number of bona fide students who can come to the UK, but it puts up significant barriers to prospective applicants. In the Bill debate on the issue in the Lords, Ralph Lucas complained about the government’s capacity to help attract students to the UK:

The Home Office is, to a substantial extent, at the front sales desk for universities. It talks directly to the customers who universities wish to attract, but it runs an antagonistic website; it has impenetrable documentation and treacle-filled systems in which it can take six months for an appeal to be heard. It refuses visas on the basis of unanswerable questions such as, “What modules do you expect to take?”. Nobody knows that until they have had a bit of experience of the university and the modules may not even be set. There are even some cases where students have been told that they are being refused a visa because the equivalent courses are cheaper in their home country and they ought to be following them.”

While the government would probably claim to already meet the first point of the amendment, the experience out there in universities is that a positive message doesn’t cut through.

On the second point in the amendment, the real issue is not whether students are counted, but whether the impact upon the government’s target for migration. In the Bill debates, Karan Bilimoria said:

“Universities UK does not argue that students in the UK should not be counted. I do not think that anyone here is saying that; we are saying that they should not be included in a net migration target. Our direct competitors categorise international students as temporary citizens. In the United States they are classified as non-immigrants alongside tourists, business visitors and those in cultural exchange programmes. In Australia they are classified as temporary migrants alongside tourists and visitors, and in Canada they are classified as temporary residents. These are our direct competitors. If they can do it, why cannot we?”

The HE Bill debate also had a contribution from Andrew Green (Chairman of Migration Watch). While this was against the grain of the debate, it does raise an important question as to whether the amendment is overreaching:

“The issue is whether there is a problem here in relation to immigration—a massive issue for the public—and, if so, what should be done about it? Is it sensible, viable or feasible to make immigration policy by legislation? I rather doubt that, and if your Lordships look a little more carefully at this amendment, you will see that there are matters in it that do not square up with the reality of how the immigration system works and really go beyond legal matters in terms of trying to suggest what policies should be.”

The Hannay amendment aims to lock into legislation the principle that any future migration regime for students can be no worse than it is at present. This is a noble ambition, but it doesn’t address the government’s drive to limit the numbers of net migrants. If we improved recording of entry and exit from the country, that would likely help. But the problem is still political, and this is an attempt to change policy through legislation.

Careful what you wish for

If the amendment – or a similar compromise – is passed into law next week in the last-minute dash to complete the Bill’s passage before the election period begins, then it would still be possible for a future government to restrict the numbers of international students. Ultimately, the government’s policy will trump the legislation because the Bill won’t bind future governments inescapably. Point 1 of the Hannay amendment is hardly enforceable (‘encourage’ is pretty vague). Point 2 places a stronger emphasis on what students do after they graduate: if they do aim to stay in the UK, the conditions for their future visa could be made more onerous as a result of that becoming the point at which they are counted. And on point 3, the government could restrict the number of offers universities could make to international students, or the number of universities making those offers: the individual students might not be treated more harshly, but the system could be more restrictive.

The campaign to have the government remove students from its migration targets has been a laudable one. But too often the nuance is missed between the net migration figures (the ‘in minus out’) and the government’s self-imposed target (the ‘tens of thousands’). And it also misses the wide range of other tools the government has at its disposal to restrict the numbers of students who come to study here. If there is a concession on this point in the final minutes of debate on the HE Bill, don’t think the fight is over.

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