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UK’s net migration position under pressure

Calls for a rethink on net migration targets and the inclusion of international students within that target were mounting on all sides of the UK political spectrum on August 24.

MPs and business leaders stepped up calls for Theresa May to protect the UK's international education industry and rethink the inclusion of international students in net migration figures.Pressure mounts on British Prime Minister Theresa May to remove international students from migration figures. Picture: Flickr/Jim Mattis

It is hoped the new figures will lead to the removal of international students from immigration figures

As the latest news that 97% of international students leave after their studies – notwithstanding those who obtained further extension to remain – filtered through, MPs and business leaders stepped up calls for Theresa May to protect the UK’s international education industry.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader who, as coalition Business Secretary, had been a champion of the sector, said, “We spent five years trying to persuade the Home Office that the figures they were using as evidence were bogus, but they persisted nonetheless on the basis of these phoney numbers.

“The consequences were very serious. I would hope they would not just apologise to the individual students, many of whom have paid large fees and even found themselves deported in some cases, but simply acknowledge that the figures are grossly distorted and wrong.”

“The exit check data confirms what many of us have been saying for years”

The opposition Labour Party chose to criticise Prime Minister May, who refused to remove international student numbers from overall immigration figures while Home Secretary. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told The Guardian that Labour agree with the Liberal Democrat view of ‘bogus figures’.

“I think there’s long been a consensus on the Labour side, but also among most Conservatives that think about these issues, that you shouldn’t have students in migration targets. The one person that wasn’t convinced was Theresa May and I think these figures show that she’s wrong,” Abbott said.

Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills at the Institute of Directors, said he hoped the new Migration Advisory Committee study will pave the way for the “long-overdue removal of students from the net migration figures”.

And various Conservatives including Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, and Justine Greening, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, voiced support for excluding students from net migration figures.

This was a campaign championed by the international education sector a few years ago, but which went nowhere, with feedback from civil servants that removing students from the migration count was politically awkward, in the context of having fixed targets for migration.

Dominic Scott, chief executive of UKCISA, said that the latest exit check data and news of an MAC study into foreign students’ impact are “all hugely important announcements”.

“The exit check data confirms what many of us have been saying for years,” he commented, “and totally contradicts those who have claimed that substantial numbers of students do not go home when they should do.”

And Lord Karan Bilimoria, UKCISA’s president and one of the co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Students, said, “I feel completely vindicated as this destroys the myth of international students overstaying and making any significant impact on net migration.

“They are one of the UK’s most valuable assets, generate more than £26bn for the economy, enhance the experience of our domestic students and create powerful links for us around the world. The sooner this is properly recognised and policies changed, the better, and if the MAC review helps with that process, we will all be delighted.”

Scott voiced optimism that the government’s position could move to a more supportive one in light of the MAC study: “We are hopeful that we can now move from a period of often ill-informed debate and unnecessary restrictions to a more welcoming regime which adequately recognises the true value of all international students to the UK.”

The revelation has grabbed the attention of the UK press, which was quick to highlight the difference between IPS and exit data. The subject also featured heavily on the BBC’s powerhouse political debate program Newsnight.

The MAC have been asked to report their findings to Downing Street by September 2018.

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