The report today from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (which scrutinises the policies of BIS) suggests non-EU students should be viewed under a separate classification that does not count against overall limits for net migration – as is done in the USA.
It adds that government needs to do more to help the UK grow its share of the overseas student market and to show students they are welcome in the UK.
“The committee notes the government’s desire to reduce net migration. However, there is a clear conflict between this policy and the desire to attract more overseas students to the UK,” said committee chairman, Adrian Bailey MP.
“At a time of such economic difficulty, it is vital that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills demonstrates it has an active strategy to support the expansion of this important and lucrative market.”
“Removing overseas students from the government’s migration targets would allow universities to compete on a level playing field”
There has been widespread criticism of the government’s policies, with some claiming that it favours including students – the largest immigrant group in the UK – in its count, so it can more easily reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015 – an election pledge.
In May 71 university heads wrote to the government on the issue, followed by another cross party group of MPs in July.
The report argues including overseas students in the tally offers a misleading picture of true immigration and puts “a world class export market” at risk. Interest from overseas students has already slowed, with non-EU applications to UK universities increasing 13% in the year to January, but falling to 8.5% by June, it shows.
A solution, it states, would be to abandon the UN method of counting immigration which views students as permanent migrants after a year in favour of the OECD method, which views them separately and as temporary.
“Whilst we understand that the UN definition of migration includes overseas students the government is under no obligation to use that definition for the development of domestic policy,” states the report.
“Removing overseas students from the Government’s migration targets would allow universities to compete on a level playing field with their international competitors.”
“Removing overseas students would allow universities to compete on a level playing field”
The committee broadly supports the government’s measures to control bogus colleges. However, it warns clumsy implementation of policies could affect Britain’s reputation abroad – just a week after London Metropolitan University controversially lost its licence to recruit non-EU students.
Commenting on the report, general secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, said: “It is particularly encouraging that the committee tasked with overseeing higher education recognises the widespread benefits overseas students bring to the UK and the huge damage that is being done by the alarming message that they are not welcome here.”