Universities UK has said that the polling suggests that the government should not consider a change of policy on international students. The implied interpretation is that government should focus on other issues and leave the student visa regime well enough alone because it’s essentially a neutral issue, and unlikely to create the kind of wedges among voters that win elections.
It is certainly noticeable that even among those who are most likely to be sceptical of the value of international students – such as those who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum – there is rarely a critical mass who actively oppose restrictions on international students.
But the reverse is also true – among those who are most supportive of international students – such as Londoners, Remainers, and those in the AB social class – there is not really a critical mass in favour either. Though there is some evidence that explaining the benefits helps to generate favourable sentiment, there’s rarely an opportunity to make this kind of direct case in the public debate.. So by the same token the message for university communications is probably also not to make too much of the issue – as it might not generate the kind of active and enthusiastic support that might be hoped for.
The people’s priorities
The polling is from 28 February to 3 March, and is of a sample of 2011 people, weighted for social class, geographical region, age, gender, political leaning, education, current proximity to their childhood area, and theirs and their parents’ immigrant identity.
Asked to select from a list of challenges the government should take most seriously, two thirds (69 per cent) selected energy prices and cost of living. NHS waiting lists (39 per cent) and ambulance and A&E wait times (26 per cent), and migration on small boats (26 per cent) were the next most popular choices. Only nine per cent selected “people coming to the UK via legal migration routes.”
When asked specifically how they felt about legal migration routes, 43 per cent agreed that legal immigration levels are much too high or a little too high – but only 36 per cent felt there should be an absolute cap on legal migration, compared with 52 per cent who said that legal immigration numbers should vary according to the country’s needs. Just under half (47 per cent) think that immigration is good or quite good for the UK economy, a quarter are neutral, and just under a quarter (23 per cent) think it is quite bad or very bad.
International students as immigrants
When asked which groups of immigrants the government should discourage from coming to the UK, only nine per cent selected international students – with much larger proportions selecting refugees and asylum seekers (35 per cent) and wealthy people who want to live here for part of the year (21 per cent).
Leavers, Brexit Party voters, those living in the East of England, and those whose parents are immigrants are slightly more exercised about international students – but only 12 or 13 per cent of respondents in each case feel they should be discouraged.
By contrast, 42 per cent of respondents feel government should actively encourage international students – a position that is extra-popular among professionals (48 per cent), Scottish people (48 per cent), those in the 18-24 age group (50 per cent), Remainers (49 per cent) and those holding postgraduate (53 per cent) or doctoral qualifications (59 per cent).
48 per cent of those whose voting intention is Labour believe the government should encourage international students, versus 36 per cent who intend to vote Conservative – and 55 per cent of those who intend to vote Lib Dem.
There’s no consensus on how government should construct immigration statistics – 41 per cent say everyone should be included, even those who only stay for a few months, while 43 per cent think only those who are moving to the UK long term should be included. When asked specifically which groups should be included, only 32 per cent think international students should be included in the immigration stats.
Likewise, there’s no particular consensus on how long international students should be allowed to stay and work in the UK after their studies – only 13 per cent think they should not be allowed to stay at all, and 18 per cent think they should be allowed to stay indefinitely, with the remainder spread between 1-5 years.
Benefits of international students
When asked which groups of immigrants are beneficial to the UK economy, more selected people who come to work in the long term (55 per cent) or short-term (42 per cent) but 38 per cent selected international students. Again, noticeably higher among professionals (45 per cent), those living in London or Scotland (both 44 per cent), Remainers (45 per cent), those with postgrad degrees (56 per cent) and those who identify as immigrants (50 per cent).
43 per cent agree that British diplomacy benefits from the UK hosting international students, and 62 per cent agree that on balance international students put money into local economies.
There’s very little support for restricting international students to “elite” universities, with two thirds (67 per cent) saying they should study wherever they choose, and 18 per cent in favour of giving preference to those studying at elite institutions. Younger people and immigrants are more persuaded by the “restrict it to elites” argument, with 27 per cent of 18-24 years olds and 26 per cent of immigrants agreeing.
When asked about the current numbers of international students, only 18 per cent say they would like to see more, 46 per cent think numbers are about right, and 26 per cent would like to see fewer. But when told that international students contribute £28.8 billion to the UK economy and generate 200,000+ jobs, the number supportive of an increase rises substantially to 36 per cent of respondents, and the proportion who think there should be fewer decreases to 11 per cent.
It is worth noting that 20 per cent feel the government should discourage the families of people who have already moved to the UK – ie student dependants specifically, but not an entirely separate category either.
But when given the context for (postgraduate) students bringing dependants – that dependants must be able to support themselves, speak English, and pay for NHS treatment – only one fifth (20 per cent) say there should be more restrictions on student dependants, 55 per cent say the current restrictions are reasonable, and a further 15 per cent say there should be fewer restrictions. There is stronger support for restrictions on dependants among Leavers (32 per cent), those aged 65+ (27 per cent), and Conservative voters (25 per cent as opposed to Labour’s 17 per cent).