Public and politicians support removal of international students from UK net migration target

Out-Law News | 26 Aug 2014 | 4:46 pm | 3 min. read

Members of the public are "surprised and even baffled" that international students are classified as 'immigrants' for the purposes of UK government migration figures, with the majority supporting their removal from the figures, according to new research carried out on behalf of Universities UK and think-tank British Future.

The body that represents UK universities found that targeting international student numbers would not address public concerns about immigration. Of those surveyed, 59% said that the government should not reduce the number of international students, even if this made it harder to reduce overall immigration numbers. This figure was even higher amongst Conservative voters, 66% of whom opposed a reduction in the number of international students.

The results of the research emerged on the same day as Lord Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, told the BBC that by including international students in the net migration figures, the UK government risked damaging the UK's reputation abroad. In an interview with Radio 4's Today programme, he said that if the UK was unable to attract foreign students it would have a "serious" impact on university finances.

The number of non-EU students enrolling in UK universities fell for the first time between academic years 2011/12 and 2012/13, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Although the figures only showed a 1% drop in numbers overall, this was only because more students arriving from China and Hong Kong masked a 25% reduction in the number of Indian students and a 19% reduction in the number of Pakistani students arriving in the UK in a single academic year. The fall has coincided with the UK government's campaign to reduce net migration, calculated by subtracting the number of people leaving the UK to live or work abroad from those arriving to live or work in the UK for longer than 12 months, to "tens of thousands".

According to the research, which was conducted by ICM on behalf of Universities UK and British Future, international students are the largest group of migrants from outside the EU counted as part of the government's net migration figures. However, only 22% of people surveyed thought of international students as 'immigrants' at all.

Respondents were concerned that by reducing the number of international students, who pay higher fees than students from England and Wales, UK universities would have less funding to invest in facilities and teaching. This view was held by 61% of respondents, with only 7% disagreeing. Only 12% of respondents thought that students were a "net drain" on the local economy, while 60% thought that they brought money in. This figure rose to 66% of those living in university towns.

"The poll is clear that the public sees international students as valuable, temporary visitors, not immigrants," said Universities UK president, Professor Sir Christopher Snowden. "It is also clear therefore that the current one-size-fits-all approach to immigration does not work and must be changed."

"With international students being caught up in efforts to bear down on immigration, there is a perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome students. If the UK wants to fulfil its potential in this growth area, it must present a welcoming climate for genuine international students and ensure that visa and immigration rules are proportionate and communicated properly," he said.

The research also found support for allowing international students to stay on and work after they finished their degrees, with 75% of respondents overall and 81% of Conservative-voting respondents in favour. The findings back the conclusions of a report by a House of Lords inquiry into the falling number of international science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students coming to the UK, which called in April for the government to rethink recent changes which limit the time that students have in which to find work after graduating.

"Three-quarters of people think that when international students graduate from British universities, they should be allowed to stay and work in the UK for at least a period of time," said Professor Snowden.

"It is better that [international students] keep their skills here and work for British companies than go back immediately and work for competitors in China or India; yet current policy makes this very difficult. After they graduate, international students have just four months to find a job, paying at least £20,500, or they have to leave. There is a serious risk this is making some of the brightest students choose other countries over Britain, when we should be encouraging them to come and study here," he said.