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UK immigration policy may be targeting ‘phantom’ international students

The Home Office could be targeting international students who don’t exist in its attempts to drive down net migration figures, according to the Institute For Public Policy Research.

IPPR's analysis debunks the claim, based on the International Passenger Survey, that 90,000 non-EU students stay in the UK after their studies.

“Government policy could be focused on driving out tens of thousands of people who may no longer be in the UK"

International students have featured heavily in the government’s efforts to control immigration in recent years, but this approach may be based on figures that overestimate the number who stay in the UK by tens of thousands, an analysis published today by the think tank has concluded.

“This is a particularly important moment to look at the data given there’s a big debate at the moment over Britain’s immigration policy in general”

Relying on data from the International Passenger Survey, the government has argued that some 90,000 students from outside the EU stay in the UK post-study.

However, IPPR’s analysis finds that this figure does not align with other data sources, meaning that “government policy could be focused on driving out tens of thousands of people who may no longer be in the UK,” it states.

Home Office figures show just 40,000 non-EU nationals who came to the UK on student visas still have leave to remain five years later.

And the number put forward by the Annual Population Survey is even lower: it suggests around 30,000–40,000 non-EU migrants who came to the UK as students are still in the country five years later.

Meanwhile, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s Destination of Leavers Survey, three-quarters of non-EU higher education students who are working six months after completing their studies are employed outside of the UK.

“That raises serious questions over the validity of that data source, which does suggest a bizarrely high number of people who are staying on after finishing their courses,” Marley Morris, a research fellow at IPPR and one of the report’s authors, told The PIE News.

“There are some questions over how the IPS might be miscalculating the number of people who are leaving the country who came in as students.”

Although the three data sets are not directly comparable to the IPS, the analysis concludes that this huge numerical discrepancy “suggests that the latter’s 90,000 figure is not reliable enough to be used as a guide for policy”.

“Motivated in large part by the belief that considerable numbers are not leaving the UK, the government has implemented a range of restrictive policies towards international students,” the report states.

It argues that these measures such as scrapping the post-study work visa and restricting work rights have adversely affected both the education sector and the wider UK economy, noting that international student numbers have stagnated in recent years.

And there is concern that further restrictions may be on the way, prompting the publication of the report, Morris said.

He is especially concerned that Brexit could create a rationale for even tighter restrictions “that further harm the education sector”.

“This is a particularly important moment to [look at the data] given there’s a big debate at the moment over Britain’s immigration policy in general.”

“The vast majority of international students clearly go home. What possible justification can there be for any limit on international student numbers?”

“Following the Brexit vote, the government should be doing all it can to secure investment in the UK,” Morris added in a statement. “But its current self-destructive policy is deterring genuine international students and putting the billions they bring to the UK at real risk.”

The report confirms what international educators have been saying “for many years”, Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, told The PIE News.

“The vast majority [of international students] clearly go home after their studies and make absolutely no impact on net migration figures,” he said.

“And if that is the case, as the report says, what possible justification can there be for any limit on international student numbers?”

This isn’t the first time gaps in data sources have been identified. Last month the Migration Observatory at Oxford University published a brief on non-European student migration to the UK that points to mixed data on permanent student migrants.

“The IPS yields only estimates of migration, and these estimates come with a substantial margin of error as well as possible unknown biases,” the brief argues.

IPPR’s report recommends excluding international students from net migration figures – something the international education sector has repeatedly lobbied for.

It also urges the government take positive steps to boost international education, by setting out a 10-year plan for the sector as Australia has in its recently-published strategy and appoint a minister for international education.

International students should be exempted from the cap on Tier 2 visas, the immigration skills charge and the resident labour market test for one year after they graduate, it adds.

“These recommendations might provide a helpful way forward for the government,” commented Sarah Cooper, chief executive of English UK.

“Many of us in the sector would like to see students taken out of the net migration figures altogether and this is a very practical and reflective approach to how this might be done, with different targets for different groups and students reclassed as temporary migrants.”

A Home Office spokesperson responded to the report, saying: “We continue to welcome the brightest and best to our world-class institutions. We are also committed to bringing net migration down to sustainable levels as soon as possible and are looking at all visa routes as part of that work.”

They also said IPS estimates are “routinely assessed by the UK Statistics Authority as being accurate and reliable for measuring immigration to the UK”.

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