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Remove international student numbers from migration figures, say MPs

A prominent parliamentary group advocating for international students in the UK has called for the cohort to be taken out of net migration figures as talks continue on planned migration cuts.

Cambridge University is one of the universities that would "do well" if current plans go ahead, but institutions in poorer regions "may not survive". Photo: Pexels

The APPG previously raised concerns about including international students in the figures in 2018

The UK PM Rishi Sunak said on November 24, in response to the highest ever net migration figures, that the government will look at the issue of overseas students studying “low-quality degrees”, which has prompted an outcry from the sector.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students released a statement on November 25 saying international students should not be included in the net migration figures at all, due to their net benefit to the country.

“Nobody’s concerned about international students in the debate on net headline migration numbers,” said co-chair Paul Blomfield MP.

“They provide a huge benefit bringing nearly £30bn a year to the UK economy, supporting jobs and businesses…including those which the government claims it wants to level up,” he continued.

International students contributed £28.8bn to the UK economy in 2021, with further research suggesting that this number continues to stay in the region of over £25bn in 2022.

“International students are one of the most visa-compliant of all groups”

“Cutting international student numbers would run directly counter to the government’s strategy to rebuild the economy – given the huge financial contribution they make to every part of the country,” Universities UK chief executive Vivienne Stern commented.

The APPG previously raised concerns about including international students in the figures in a 2018 enquiry, but it was not addressed.

It also stresses that, based on exit checks, a decisive 98% of non-EU students who were studying in the UK leave the country “on time and before their visa expires”.

“The latest Home Office data show how international students are one of the most visa-compliant of all groups,” chief executive of the Russell Group Tim Bradshaw confirmed, citing that the group’s universities “collectively spend over £25m a year” on making sure visa rules are complied with.

Talks regarding students with dependants has also been a factor in possible decision making at Number 10, with Sunak’s home secretary Suella Braverman claiming international students “bring too many dependants and do not contribute to economic growth”, and that “too many choose the UK” in general.

“The fact that our universities attract students from around the world is an asset for the UK – proposals that limit or restrict that asset would be a mistake, damaging local economies and contradicting the government’s own international education strategy,” Bradshaw said.

“It also sends the wrong signal about the UK on the global stage,” he added.

Universities Scotland also commented on the idea of cutting international student numbers, saying that they generate £1.94bn net contribution to the region’s economy, and their diversity brings “significant advantages to both our students and the community”.

“Additionally, Scottish universities face a double whammy: we are reliant on income from international students to subsidise the cost of teaching Scottish students due to underfunding from the Scottish government,” added the organisation’s director Alistair Sim.

“If you close down the international route I’m not sure how the university continues to survive”

This is a worry shared by the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, who echoed that most universities “lose money” on teaching domestic students – a loss offset by the fees international students pay.

“Although London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if overseas students were only allowed places at “elite” universities, poorer regions, particularly those in the north, would suffer,” said chairman Brian Bell.

“If you close down the international route I’m not sure how the university continues to survive,” he added.

He even said there may be a threat of domestic fees being raised as a result, a significant pain point for British universities in the last 15 years.

The solution, instead of cutting international student numbers, the APPG says, is to eliminate them from the figures altogether – otherwise it could cause “ready and willing” competitors like Australia and Canada to “take away market share from the UK”.

“We are in a global race and many of our competitor countries do not include international students when calculating net migration figures as the vast majority of international students are not immigrants,” said co-chair of the APPG Lord Bilimoria.

“The prime minister and the home secretary must think again and drop this backwards-looking proposal,” Blomfield implored.

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