UK: Net migration questioned again as new data shows 97% of international students leave in time

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New border exit check data from the UK reveals that 97.4% of foreign students leave the country before their visa expires
  • This provides conclusive evidence that the number of students who overstay their visas is considerably below previous government estimates
  • The new findings again call into question whether international students should be included in the government’s net migration targets

New data from border exit checks has led the UK’s Office for National Statistics to conclude that “there is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay.”

In fact, a corresponding report from the Home Office finds that 97.4% of foreign students leave the country before their study visa expires.

Foreign students in the UK have remained part of the government’s net migration calculations in large part because of earlier official estimates that nearly 100,000 students per year overstay their visas. Those estimates have often been challenged by British educators, and indeed there have been some indications that actual number of overstaying students is considerably lower.

The question as to whether international students should figure in the country’s net migration targets has also been contentious within the government, most recently in May of this year when it appeared that Prime Minister Theresa May may have moved to exclude foreign students from net migration counts.

This is not merely a question of bureaucracy or statistics. Foreign students’ inclusion in the net migration target has had demonstrable effects on international education in the UK in recent years, especially as the government’s broad policy direction of reducing migration levels has led it 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.

Against this backdrop, the new Home Office exit check data represents a major finding that again calls into question the current policy of including international students in annual net migration figures. Rather than the nearly 100,000 overstaying students suggested by earlier government estimates, the new border checks reveal the actual number of students who overstay was just over 4,600 for 2016/17.

“These two official reports show that there is very high visa compliance by international students,” said Universities UK Chief Executive Alistair Jarvis. “The number of students overstaying their visas is a tiny fraction of previous (incorrect) claims.”

Russell Group Acting Director Dr Tim Bradshaw added, “This exit check data confirms that in addition to helping create a diverse learning environment and making a big economic impact, an overwhelming majority of international students comply fully with the terms of their visas.”

A fresh look at international students

Just as this new data was being released last week, Home Secretary Amber Rudd also announced that she has asked an expert panel to undertake a new study of the impacts of foreign students on the UK economy. The Home Secretary’s commissioning letter to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) strikes a notably more positive tone with respect to international recruitment.

“There is no limit on the number of genuine international students which educational institutions in the UK can recruit, and, equally importantly, the Government has consistently made clear that it has no plans to limit any institution’s ability to recruit international students,” said the Home Secretary. “As long as students leave at the end of their studies, they should not be significantly contributing to net migration, and therefore there is no conflict between our commitment to reduce net migration and to attract international students.”

Referring to the new border exit data, Ms Rudd added, “The analysis of exit checks data published today shows that the overwhelming majority of students whose visa expired in 2016/17 were recorded as having left in-time.”

The MAC will now examine the direct economic impacts associated with foreign student spending in the UK, as well as the broader social and economic impacts of international education in the country. The committee has been asked to file its report by September 2018.

For additional background, please see:

• “Applications to British universities fall 4% overall
• “UK ELT declines for third straight year
• “Measuring up: Global market share and national targets in international education
• “UK: Is the net migration question back on the table?



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