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UK sector welcomes ONS plan to overhaul measure of international students

The UK’s Office for National Statistics has announced plans to overhaul the way it counts international students. The independent agency has confirmed it is looking to data sources beyond the International Passenger Survey.

Photo: The PIE News.

"We need more clarity on the true scale of international student flows as a matter of urgency”

The news has been welcomed by stakeholders in the sector. James Pitman, Study Group’s managing director of higher education in the UK and Europe, called the announcement “encouraging”.

“Potentially erroneous ONS statistics based on spurious IPS data arguably fuelled a government crackdown on student visas that continues to damage our universities and our economy,” he said.

“This data went unquestioned by the government for too long, which has resulted in an incorrect view of international students as visa overstayers, rather than temporary education tourists.”

The IPS is used to monitor the number of international students coming into and leaving the UK as part of official net migration data, but has been widely criticised as unreliable.

An in-depth report from the Institute For Public Policy Research found large disparities between the findings of the IPS and other sources.

The IPPR report concluded that by relying on IPS data as a basis for policymaking, the Home Office could be targeting ‘phantom’ graduates supposedly overstaying their student visas.

“A secretive investigation suggested that just 1% of international students overstay”

“One of the significant current challenges is to understand what former international student immigrants do when they complete their studies,” the ONS said in a data development plan published on February 24.

“The IPS figures of international students immigrating to the UK are consistently higher than the IPS figures of former international students emigrating,” it notes.

The ONS data has been used to back up assertions that large numbers of international students are remaining in the UK, unaccounted for, after their visas have expired.

These findings were apparently contradicted by a secretive investigation by the Home Office looking at international student numbers and exit checks on the UK border, which suggested that just 1% of international students overstay.

When this analysis was uncovered in October last year, the Home Office denied the existence of a secret report but a spokesperson told The PIE News that it was monitoring the data gathered through exit checks “to ensure that it is statistically robust”.

In its announcement, the ONS said it will explore alternative data sources in the coming months. “We are working collaboratively with other government departments to investigate what other sources can tell us,” it said.

“This is a complex area which will require analysis of several datasets, drawing on the expertise of data providers across government.”

IPPR welcomed the announcement. Marley Morris, research fellow for migration, integration and communities, said: “We fully support the ONS review into the measurement of international student migration and are encouraged by their efforts to more accurately determine what students do after completing their studies.”

“Given this is such a critical statistic for migration policy, we need more clarity on the true scale of international student flows as a matter of urgency.”

 “We are encouraged by the ONS’s efforts to more accurately determine what students do after completing their studies”

The review into international student data comes as part of a broader development of how the ONS gathers and analyses international migration data. Other areas it will look at include the impacts of migration on the labour market, housing and population growth.

The announcement comes alongside the announcement that net migration in the UK has fallen by 49,000 over the last year to its lowest level in two years, according to the latest statistics from the ONS, which are based on the IPS.

However, non-EU students accounted for two-thirds of that drop, falling an estimated 31,000 to 87,000.

Immigration minister Robert Goodwill welcomed the figures as “encouraging”, which will do nothing to assuage concerns from the international education sector that future changes to UK immigration policy will continue to make it more difficult for international students to come and study.

“We will continue reforming routes to the UK from outside Europe and will use the opportunity to take control of immigration from within the EU as we begin Brexit negotiations in the coming weeks,” Goodwill said.

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