“Lively debate” could see foreign students excluded from net migration targets in the UK

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Chancellor George Osborne appeared before a parliamentary committee last week and indicated publicly for the first time cabinet-level interest in removing international students from net migration figures
  • The issue remains contentious in the UK, particularly against a backdrop of strong public support for reducing net migration levels
  • At the same time, the government has also set ambitious targets for expanding international enrolment, including a drive to recruit an additional 55,000 students and to push overall education exports to £30 billion by 2020

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne sent a strong signal last week that the British government may be moving toward excluding foreign students from official migration figures.

Appearing before the House of Commons Treasury Committee on 1 December, the chancellor said of overseas students, “The current way the UK calculates its migration numbers they are included, but if you talk about the government’s commitment on reducing migration, I would say where that strikes a public chord and has public sympathy is where we are trying to reduce permanent migration to the country. The Government’s ambition is to reduce permanent migration to this country to a more manageable level and at the same time to have a successful university sector in which [international students] come and study and then leave.”

Indeed, the inclusion of international students in net migration counts has been a contentious policy for some time, with education and business leaders in the UK arguing strongly against it. The question has been difficult to resolve, however, as it sits within a wider immigration debate in Britain and a strong popular interest in constraining net migration in particular.

Meanwhile, the government’s broad policy direction of reducing migration levels has led the British Home Office, and Secretary Theresa May, to introduce a number of proposals that have constrained work rights for international students, raised visa fees, imposed tighter controls on student immigration, and expanded monitoring and reporting responsibilities for British institutions.

Under the most recent policy change, which came into effect on 12 November 2015, further education (FE) students are not be permitted to apply for a work visa following their studies unless they first leave the country. Moreover, the length of FE visas has been reduced from three years to two.

Study UK recently conducted a survey of colleges to gauge the projected impact of the new policy. Their findings revealed:

  • “31 institutions had students no longer eligible to re-sit or retake modules as visa extensions will be refused; another 43 institutions had students who intended to study at a higher level after finishing their current course;
  • 39 institutions say some of their prospective students will not study with them due to this rule, for five institutions this amounts to over 60% of their regular student intake;
  • Most cite that the uncertainty of the new process means students will turn to other countries;
  • 34 institutions said they would experience significant financial loss over the next three years as a result of these changes, and together they estimate losses of £7 million this year with an average loss of over £210,000;
  • This will rise to a loss of £11 million in 2017, with an average loss of £337,000 per institution.”

A joint statement issued on 12 November by six representative bodies (Study UK, the National Union of Students, English UK, UK Council for International Student Affairs, the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students, and Exporting Education UK) opposed the policy changes which took effect that day, calling on the government to remove students from net migration targets, and to “establish a working group to review the UK’s full range of educational pathways, to ensure that our offer to genuine students remains internationally competitive.”

The call for change

The chancellor’s statements have been seen in many circles as a more open acknowledgement of a division within the British Cabinet on the question of international student policy. The chancellor reportedly has the backing of Business Secretary Sajid Javid, whereas Prime Minister David Cameron has, to this point at least, lent his support to Ms May’s more restrictive policy directions.

In last week’s appearance before committee, the chancellor acknowledged there was a “lively debate in all circles” as to how migrants to the UK should be counted. He also took the chance to slap down the latest Home Office proposals, including calls for tougher English-language tests for overseas students and restrictions on dependants accompanying post-graduate students to the UK. “Those aren’t Government policy,” said the chancellor. “I’m not aware there’s been any agreement in the Government or indeed any hard-and-fast proposals on that.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the dividing line here appears to fall between the interests of the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in driving export growth – including education exports – and those of the Home Office with regards to government net migration targets.

For his part, the chancellor also seems to be trying to separate the question of immigration controls (and net migration) from the broader policy issues in play, including the economic and cultural impacts of international students in the UK. He added last week:

“I think what you have seen is a quite healthy growth in international students in bona fide institutions in what everyone would regard as proper degrees but a very tough and correct clampdown on bogus routes into the country via the student visa system. I think that’s the right balance.”

Mr Osborne’s remarks follow other recent policy announcements from the British government which also suggest a growing emphasis on building international enrolment and education export revenues. The Autumn Statement from the Treasury set out a goal to increase non-EU enrolment by 55,000 additional students by 2020. The statement also established that accompanying dependants of foreign postgraduate students would be entitled to work during their stay in the UK.

Meanwhile, Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson has come forward with even more ambitious plans. In a speech earlier this year, the minister announced the government’s commitment to increasing overall education exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020.

Industry observers immediately expressed their skepticism at the time that this target could be achieved within the UK’s current conflicted policy framework for international students. Indeed, despite its status as a leading study destination, the UK has been losing ground in the global education market in recent years.

Earlier this summer, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said it was “ludicrous” to include overseas students in UK migration targets and that the important benefits arising from greater foreign enrolment in UK institutions were being “sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.”

Universities UK Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge echoed the vice-chancellor’s sentiment at the time, stating, “International students should be removed from the government’s net migration target. It is clear that international students are not long-term migrants. They come to the UK, study for a period, and then the overwhelming majority go home after their studies.”

Mr Osborne’s recent comments to committee have triggered a fresh round of commentary from business and education leaders, among them the business advocacy group the Institute of Directors (IoD).

“We welcome the Chancellor’s acknowledgement that most students who come to the UK to study are not permanent migrants,” said the IoD’s Head of Employment and Skills Policy, Seamus Nevin. “Government must follow through on this undeniable logic and remove international students from the net migration target. The [Office of National Statistics] already collects separate figures for students so it would be exceptionally easy to set them aside from the aspiration to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year.”

Mr Nevin added, “Education, particularly higher education, is one of this country’s greatest success stories. Higher education is one of the UK’s biggest exports, adding over £10 billion a year to our economy. If George Osborne wants to boost our universities and our economy, he should take this simple step as soon as possible.”



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