Do 40 per cent of international students stay in the UK?

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick was on GB News this morning, in which he said that one of the areas that is “ripe for reform” is the number of students coming into the UK, partly given how “easy it is for them to bring dependants” here.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Arguing that students represent a “big driver”of net migration, he said that a “very significant” number use being a student as a route to a life in the UK:

And what I’m concerned about is there are people coming to universities here as a backdoor way of bringing their families into the UK and staying here for a prolonged period. Because although the majority of students do leave the country at the end of their studies, 40 per cent don’t.

That 4 in 10 figure seems to fly in the face of the traditional view of international students as people that overwhelmingly leave at the end of their course – so what’s the reality?

The figure of 61 per cent – included in the net migration publication from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week – actually comes from an analysis of “visa journeys and student outcomes” that uses data from the Home Office ISA (Initial Status Analysis) system.

It combines data from various sources to link an individual’s travel in or out of the UK with their immigration history, only covers visitors from non-EEA countries, deliberately excludes those moving from short-term study visas for English language courses to other study visas, and the most up-to-date report only covers students with visas ending in 2018 to 2019:

Between 2015 and 2020, 59 per cent of students who remained in the country went on to further study after their first course. 22 per cent went on to visit visas, 3 per cent went on to a family visa and 10 per cent went on to a work visa.

Then of that 10 per cent:

  • 8 per cent held a T1 “High Value Migrants” visa
  • 73 per cent held a T2 “Skilled Workers” visa
  • 8 per cent held a T5 “Temporary Workers” visa
  • A further 5 per cent held another type of work visa

The Home Office’s own figures in its “Migrant journey” report cover a longer period to see if students really stay. That tells us that of the 152,000 people granted a study visa in 2016, only 17 per cent still held valid temporary leave at the end of 2021. Less than 1 per cent had been granted settlement.

Over ten years, of the 222,000 granted a study visa in 2011, 7 per cent still held valid temporary leave and 6 per cent had been granted settlement at the end of 2021 – and over time, the proportion of students who subsequently obtain a work visa within five years seems to be going down, not up. 13 per cent of those granted a study visa in the 2004 cohort got a work visa within 5 years, but as noted above that was just 5 per cent for the 2016 cohort.

So these figures from Jenrick’s own department seem to contradict at least the spirit of his comments, if not the technical phrasing that he used – but there is lots that we don’t know.

The graduate route’s impact (on entrants, short stays and longer stays via a new visa) isn’t in any of these figures at all – although we are starting to see its impacts in other data sets.

We are unlikely to be getting a new ONS analysis for a while, because of Covid-related problems with exit checks. Once back up and running that would give us some clues as to whether those coming because of the graduate route and those on it are staying by switching to work visas.

We should also note the significant differences in the proportions of those that stay from different countries, given that the rapid expansion we’ve seen over the past couple of years has not been uniform by country:

Top 5 nationalities issued an initial sponsored study visa in 2011

Visa categoryPeople in 2011 cohort% with expired leave after five years% with valid leave after five year% granted settlement after five years
All nationalities2216360.870.070.06
Of which:
United States136480.950.020.03

ONS says that future data linkage may allow it to not only analyse the type of work visa that non-EU graduates later hold, but also their salary and industry area.

That would be fascinating for all sorts of reasons – not least because elsewhere across the media today there continue to be huge concerns both about backlogs in the NHS and the “missing millions” from the workforce.

That’s driven largely by long-term sickness and early retirement – two problems that are very difficult to solve any time soon without more immigration. So even if Jenrick’s right, those that stay are almost certainly in jobs that we need filled and are paying plenty of tax in the process.

That said, expecting students from other countries to pay to prop up the funding of our higher education system as a route to then plugging structural holes in our economy (only to be demonised in the media) is not necessarily something to be proud of.

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