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UK: Is the net migration question back on the table?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Rapidly unfolding political events in the UK have left a piece of pending legislation hanging in the balance
  • The legislation includes an amendment that will effectively remove foreign students from net migration counts in the UK
  • The Prime Minister is said to be considering a reversal of her long-standing position that students must be included in migration statistics
  • Meanwhile, a recent opinion poll finds strong support for international students among the British public, and notes that relatively few see foreign students in the UK as immigrants

Update for 1 May 2017: The Higher Education and Research Bill was indeed passed before the dissolution of Parliament but the amendments concerning foreign students and net migration were removed. As the BBC reported on 27 April, “Although this proposal has been rejected, universities believe that a longer-term deal could still be achieved, saying there is an agreement to look again at the data on overseas students and migration.”

The British press is reporting that Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to reverse her long-held position against removing international students from net migration totals in the UK.

Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative government has vowed to reduce net migration to the UK to under 100,000 migrants per year. That target has never been reached, and, as it stands today, international students are included in official statistics used to calculate net migration to the UK.

However, some reports have it that the Prime Minister is being pressed by senior Conservative members to remove foreign students from the net migration count, and that she is considering doing so in order to ensure the passage of the pending Higher Education and Research Bill. In the wake of the Prime Minister’s snap election call for 8 June, Parliament will now dissolve on 2 May. All pending legislation must be passed before that date or it will die on the order papers.

At stake in the Higher Education Bill is new legislation crafted by Universities Minister Jo Johnson which will allow British institutions a new mechanism to raise domestic tuition fees beyond current cap limits. The Bill took an interesting twist last month when it was amended during debate in the House of Lords. The amendment effectively calls for international students to be removed from the net migration calculations.

The Prime Minister is now reportedly prepared to accept the amendment in order to see the Bill passed in this parliamentary session, and to ensure the support of Conservative members for the June election call. “The prime minister is ready to soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals,” reports The Times. “Now she is offering to change the way that student numbers are calculated, with the promise of further concessions. The compromise is an attempt to ensure that an overhaul of the university system can pass through parliament in the next week.”

It is unclear, however, how these dramatic last days of Parliament will unfold during a flurry of fast-paced negotiations to pass as much pending legislation as possible. Indeed, the Financial Times has added its own report earlier today to indicate that the Prime Minister will not allow the amendment to proceed, but will instead take other steps to ensure the passage of the Higher Education Bill.

Survey says

The high stakes political maneuvering ahead occurs against the backdrop of a new public opinion poll commissioned by Universities UK. It finds that nearly three in four Britons would like to see the same number, or more, of international students coming to study in the UK. Only 26% of respondents indicated that they see foreign students as immigrants “when thinking about government immigration policy.”

Among other findings, the Universities UK poll found that:

  • Two-thirds of British adults think that international students make a positive contribution to the local economies of the town and cities in which they study
  • Six in ten (61%) said that they think foreign students also have a valuable social and cultural effect on their host communities
  • Three quarters of respondents believe that international students should be allowed to work in the UK for a period of time after graduation

“It is clear that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. They come to the UK, study for a period, then the vast majority return home,” said Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent.

“While the UK government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers,” she added.

“The most recent figures on international students in the UK showed a worrying decline in the number of new international enrolments over recent years..If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK.”

For additional background, please see:

UK: Higher education holding; poised for growth in ELT
UK government signals increasing emphasis on transnational education
Lively debate” could see foreign students excluded from net migration targets in the UK

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