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Report: UK Home Secretary pushing for removal of international students from net migration counts

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • British media reports indicate that Home Secretary Amber Rudd is leading a push to remove international students from the country’s net migration statistics
  • The inclusion of visiting students in the net migration total has been seen as a contributing factor to more restrictive visa policy in recent years, including moves to limit work rights for international students, higher visa fees, and expanded monitoring and reporting responsibilities for British institutions

The UK’s inclusion of international students in net migration statistics has often been contentious – and perhaps never more so than now. Media reports suggest that Prime Minister Theresa May’s own cabinet is increasingly in favour of removing students from the net migration tally, and that Home Secretary Amber Rudd is actively pursuing the policy change.

According to the The Financial Times, Ms Rudd is now “leading a new cabinet push to remove students from the government immigration targets, in a move that will delight universities but put her on course to clash with the prime minister.”

One cabinet minister told The Financial Times that Prime Minister May is “‘in a minority of one’ in the cabinet in believing that students must be counted in the target,” and that,

“Miss Rudd believes that unless the prime minister changes her position in the coming weeks, the government will suffer a humiliating defeat early next year when the Commons considers a bill to set up a post-Brexit immigration regime.”

Universities UK’s Alistair Jarvis noted, “If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students and staff, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK.”

Policy background

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, with international students included in official statistics used to calculate the total. The target has never been reached, and the impact of the policy – widely viewed as unwelcoming to international students – on Britain’s higher education sector has been significant.

Since 2010, for example, Indian enrolment in British universities has been halved, and international enrolments in general have either been flat or in decline for some years amid a global context that has seen other major study destinations gain market share.

The sense that Britain has become less welcoming for international students has been reinforced by a suite of policies running alongside the net migration question: constrained work rights for international students, higher visa fees, tighter controls on student immigration, and expanded monitoring and reporting responsibilities for British institutions.

Growing evidence

The rationale for the inclusion of foreign students in migration statistics has often hinged on assertions that international students overstay their visas, on anti-immigrant sentiment among some voters, and on statements such as Prime Minister May’s earlier this year:

“Students are in the migration figures because it is in the international definition of net migration and we abide by the same definition that is used by other countries in the world.”

Yet the wisdom of the policy has routinely been called into question, and was challenged further earlier this year when the Home Office found that 97.4% of foreign students leave the country before their study visa expires.

In addition, evidence points to a British public that accepts and appreciates the presence of international students in its midst. A recent survey conducted by Universities UK found that Britons are overwhelmingly positive about international students in their communities:

  • 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.”
  • 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.

New study planned

The on-again-off-again debate about whether or not to reverse the inclusion of foreign students in net migration targets is accompanied by an announcement this summer by Ms Rudd that there will be a special study of the impacts of foreign students on the UK economy.

“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.”

The report will be filed in September 2018, but the issue may well come to a head before then as previous studies have clearly demonstrated the tremendous benefits international students bring to the British economy. Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, responded to the announcement of the upcoming economic impact study by saying, “This is an opportunity to build on the considerable evidence that shows that international students have a very positive impact on the UK economy and local communities.”

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