The impacts of international students in the UK
- The benefits of international students are not in doubt – provided that they are genuine.
- There has been substantial abuse of the route since 2009 which has now been largely dealt with.
- The first year of exit checks has shown that 60,000 students extended their stay for further study, work or marriage. Of the rest, some 97% left within their visa conditions.
- 25,000 of those who arrived for study were granted settlement in each year between 2009-2015, according to Home Office analysis.
- The case for continuing to include students in both the net migration statistics and the net migration target is very strong.
- It should not deter international students as there is not, and never has been, any limit on the number of such students, provided they are genuine. Much of the negative publicity has been generated by ill founded complaints from the Higher Education sector itself.
- Nor has there been any limit on the number permitted to switch into work provided that is at graduate level with a salary of £20,800.
- Continued vigilance is essential since the future of the Higher Education sector depends crucially on its reputation.
- International students are of very great benefit to the UK provided that they are genuine (see response to first question in annex A). The government rightly offers non-EU nationals a fair and flexible route by which they can benefit from a chance to study in the UK. There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK and the Government has said that it has no intention of imposing such a limit. There is also no cap on the number of international students who can switch into work provided that they take up a graduate-level job earning at least £20,800 a year. Furthermore, those going into work from study are exempt from the Immigration Skills Charge and the Resident Labour Market Test.
- We have argued that the UK should also maintain an open and generous route for EU students after Brexit. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, movement to the UK for EU students (along with EU tourists, business visitors, and the self-sufficient) should remain as unhindered as possible. EU students should be free to enter the UK to study on a visa-free basis (the same should apply for UK students travelling to study in the EU). Those who wished to stay on and work would need a work permit since, in our view, post Brexit controls on EU migration should focus on workers. In addition, there is no reason why existing schemes such as Erasmus, which currently includes non-EU states such as Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, should not be able to continue unaffected.
- Following the introduction in 2009 of the points-based system with respect to students, abuse of the student visa route became a significant problem. A 2012 National Audit Office report found that, between March 2009 and February 2010, 40,000-50,000 individuals may have entered the UK to work rather than study. Additionally, the government found maladministration of the student visa route by a number of UK universities. To take one example, London Metropolitan University’s sponsorship licence was revoked for a period of months from August 2012 after the UK Border Agency (UKBA) found that more than a quarter of sampled students had no valid visa to be in the UK. Furthermore, in 2014 a BBC Panorama investigation uncovered evidence of abuse in a language testing center used by those in need of an English language examination in order to extend their student visa. The Home Office suspended the tests provided by the company. The investigation also uncovered a network of agents selling fraudulent documentation such as bank statements and academic records.
- Reforms aimed at tackling abuse have met with considerable success. The key measures included the following:
- From 2011, new English language requirements were introduced;
- From 2012, the post-study work route was closed to new entrants. In part, this stemmed from the publication of a 2010 Home Office report, which found that, of those who had taken employment via the Tier 1 post-study work route, more than half of those whose occupation could be identified were found to be working in unskilled jobs.
- From July 2012, the re-introduction of interviews for high-risk applicants;
- From November 2014 – the permitted visa refusal rate for sponsor institutions was reduced from 20% to 10%;
- Student visa extensions were limited to those demonstrating academic progression;
- Close to 1,000 bogus colleges were closed.
Effect of the measures
- As for the effectiveness of these changes, the Home Office noted in August 2017: “The tightening of the rules in areas where abuse has been uncovered was reflected in a 78% decrease in entry clearance visa applications sponsored by the further education sector between 2010 and 2016.” However, ‘over the same period the number of applications sponsored by the higher education sector rose by 17%’. This suggests that, from 2010 onwards, measures aimed at tackling abuse had an impact, notably in the Further Education sector. There was also a 47% rise in applications sponsored by Russell Group universities from 2010-2016.
Post study work route
- Calls are often made by various parties for a post-study work visa to be reintroduced following its closure in April 2012. However, one study by the then-UK Border Agency found that a majority of those whose occupation could be identified went into unskilled work (See above). Furthermore, most students already have a post-graduate period of four months after the completion of their course in which to find work. The UK’s post-study work arrangements are more generous than those in New Zealand and the United States. Furthermore, in December 2017, the UK government said that it would extend a pilot programme to allow masters graduates to remain in the UK in order to search for work for up to six months after the end of their studies at a total of 27 universities in all parts of the UK.
- Much is often made of the fall in the number of Indian students applying to study at UK universities since 2010. However, 2010 was the peak of the abuse of the route. In that year several visa sections in the Indian subcontinent had to be closed for six months as a result of concerns over fraudulent applications. A 2011 UKBA pilot study interviewed student visa applicants at both high and low risk posts across the world to assess the credibility of students. It concluded that 59% of applicants interviewed in India should have been denied on credibility grounds.
- The fall in student visa applications by Indian nationals that has occurred since 2010 has mostly been in the non-university sector and was largely due to the elimination of abuse. However, numbers are now recovering. Figures released by the Home Office on 30 November revealed a 27% rise in the number of long-term study visas granted to Indian nationals in the year ended September 2017. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data show that there was a 50% increase in the number of Indian-domiciled undergraduates enrolled at ten top universities between 2010/11 and 2015/16. Meanwhile, the fall since 2010 in the overall number of Indian students applying to UK higher education institutions since 2010 has been counter-balanced by a rise in applicants from other countries. HESA data released in January 2018 found that between 2012/13 and 2016/17 there was a 5,800 decrease in higher education enrolments by students domiciled in India. However, this was paralleled by a rise of 11,400 in the number of students domiciled in China.
Inclusion in the migration statistics
- A number of voices have called for international students to be removed from the net migration statistics. Such a move would be impracticable and further erode public confidence in the government’s ability to monitor, measure and control immigration to the UK. It could also risk damaging the reputation of the Higher Education sector.
- While they are here, international students have an impact on communities, infrastructure and services. As acting Deputy National Statistician Ian Cope told the Lords EU Home Affairs sub-committee in December 2016: “Long term international migration is defined as those people coming into the country for 12 months or more. Obviously students here at universities will be here for more than 12 months and should be included in the long term international migration numbers.”
- The direct and indirect effects of net migration, if it remains at around current levels of a quarter of a million a year, have been projected to account for over 80% of population growth by 2041. A proportion of international students add to this longer-term population growth so they should continue to be counted in the net migration figures (see Annex A). While evidence from Exit Checks suggests that international students are nowadays largely compliant with their visa requirements, nearly 60,000 obtained an extension for marriage, work or further studies in 2015/16. Home Office visa statistics suggest that the number of students switching into work or family has been just over 10,000 a year.
- In addition, an average of 23,300 non-EU migrants who originally arrived on a student visa, along with 4,000 who arrived on a student dependant visa, were granted settlement in the UK in each year during 2009-2015, according to Home Office ‘Migrant Journey’ analysis published in February 2016. Additionally, over a million foreign-born people living in the UK in early 2016 had originally arrived for purposes of study, according to analysis of the Labour Force Survey. The longer-term impact on the UK population only underlines why students should remain in the net migration figures.
- International students should continue to be recorded as net migrants for the following additional reasons:
- The net migration statistics define a migrant as someone changing their normal place of residence for more than a year. This reflects international best practice, in line with a United Nations definition. The majority of students who come to the UK for a year or more clearly count as migrants under this definition and should continue to be included in the net migration figures.
- All of the UK’s major competitors report a net migration figure that includes students.
- As the reliability of the IPS outflow figures are still in doubt, and as we have only one year of Exit Checks, accurate departure figures will not be available for several years.
- Removing students would create confusion with respect to a range of official statistics that would continue to use net migration statistics with students included. As the House of Commons Library has said: “Removing specific groups from a time-based definition of migration breaks the mathematical relationships that underpin population estimates” (see paper).
- There are also wider reasons:
- Even if students were removed from the statistics, the press and public would add them back in and accuse the government of fiddling the numbers.
- This would turn a policy success in cleaning up abuse and improving the statistics into a negative outcome. The painstaking work to tackle the abuse of the student route since 2010 could be undermined.
- Removing students could well result in other interest groups seeking similar treatment – for example, Intra-Company Transferees are entirely temporary yet numbered 36,000 last year.
- The public are opposed (by a margin of 19 percentage points) to removing students from the net migration figures (ComRes poll, April 2017). This reflects similar results from an Autumn 2016 YouGov poll.
International students and the net migration target
- The government committed to voters prior to the last General Election that it would reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year. However, there has been an attempt to ensure that international students are excluded from the net migration figures ‘for public policy purposes…for the duration of their studies’. Indeed, an amendment to the Higher Education Bill was passed to this effect in the House of Lords in early 2017 (although it was later reversed in the House of Commons). Should such a move succeed in future, it would effectively remove international students from being considered as part of the net migration target.
- The case for doing so rests on the claim that students are ‘temporary migrants’. However, this is quite wrong because some students are able to, and do, switch into routes that allow settlement (as is noted above). In addition, a 2015 Parliamentary Answer revealed that, since 2011, over 17,000 asylum claims had been received from individuals who initially entered the UK on a student visa. Those granted protection are entitled to apply subsequently for settlement in the UK. In addition, a proportion of those entering the UK for purposes of study may have been granted settlement in the UK on the basis of the ten year rule (Immigration Rule 276B). This allows those who can prove that they have a decade of continuous and lawful residence in the UK to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
- If students were to be removed from the net migration target, it would be necessary for students switching into another visa category to be reinserted into net migration statistics for the statistics to accurately reflect net migration of non-students. This would raise a host of practical problems, including whether students switching into other categories should be reinserted into net migration statistics in the year that they switched or whether they would be reinserted into net migration statistics for the year that they initially arrived. Students who remain in the UK illegally after their visa has expired would also have to be reinserted into the net migration statistics once it became clear that they had failed to depart the country.
- Removing students from the net migration statistics, even ‘for public policy purposes’, raises the danger that the student route could become subject to abuse, as it has in the past, especially if it was not possible for those who overstay to be identified and reinserted into net migration statistics. It is possible that the government’s focus would be on those routes that count towards net migration. Abuse could start to flourish again if this were to occur, in particular amongst those less academically rigorous institutions that might wish to increase the number of non-EU students that they attract. There is a serious risk to the reputation of the sector should it become clear that the government are half-hearted about cutting out abuse.
18 January 2018
Answers to specific questions in the Migration Advisory Committee’s Call for Evidence:
- What are the fiscal impacts of migrant students?
International students pay considerable amounts in tuition fees and are a much needed revenue stream for universities. Also, by spending their money in the local community, they create and sustain jobs.
- What role do migrant students play in extending UK soft power and influence abroad?
On their return to their home countries, students are more likely to do business with Britain and are often ‘ambassadors’ for this country making them an important source of ‘soft power’. A very significant number of Heads of State and other notable persons have been educated in Britain. However, the benefits of international students are maximised when the majority go home at the end of their studies. See our list of Foreign Heads of State and Notable Alumni who studied at UK Institutions.
- What is the impact of migrant students on the demand for housing provision, on transport (particularly local transport) and on health provision?
There is very little available data on the specific impacts that international students, either from the EU or from outside the EU, have on specific areas such as housing, transport and health provision. However, it is worth repeating the broader point made above that, like other migrants, students who stay for longer than 12 months have an impact on communities, infrastructure and services while they are here. A proportion also add to longer-term population growth.
- Whether, and to what extent, migrant students enter the labour market, when they graduate and what types of post-study work do they do?
There is evidence that EU domiciled students ‘are high performers in UK higher education, and that they go on to occupy a strong position in the UK labour market’, at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels (Institute for Social and Economic Research, May 2016).
However, the extent of demand amongst employers for international students, at least with respect to those from outside the EU, is called into question by Home Office visa extension statistics which show that, between 2012 and 2016, an average of only 4,700 previous students per year switched into the Tier 2 (General) – or highly-skilled work category. By contrast, in 2011, the final full year in which the Tier 1 (Post Study Work) route was open, there were almost 50,000 grants of that visa.
Calls to reintroduce the post-study work route to the UK could very well lead to a proliferation of non-UK students entering unskilled work. This would not be of any significant benefit to the UK economy. Re-introducing such a route would likely also lead to an increase in net migration levels (at a time when the public has made clear that they want such levels reduced significantly), along with additional pressure on population growth, public services and infrastructure.