Migration data: under scrutiny


The ONS (The Office for National Statistics) is improving the way it calculates migration data and analysis on international student numbers. The main reason behind this has been triggered by a growing concern that the previously ONS published figures were rather questionable, and not accurate enough.

With regard to this decision, James Pitman, MD Higher Education UK & Europe of Study Group, has kindly agreed to answer a few questions and explain what does this mean for international students. We’ll also find out why students are regarded as visa overstayers and how does political and economic trends impact on these negative perceptions.


International migration figures:
can they be trusted?


Mounting evidence suggests that the International Passenger Survey (IPS) data that the ONS uses to calculate net migration is unreliable. An enquiry led by MPs three years ago found that the IPS was “little better than a best guess”.

The IPS began as a travel and tourism poll and was not designed to measure migration, as a result there are a number of flaws with its methodology. Travellers are only questioned between 6am and 10pm, so overnight flights slip through the cracks, and migrants make up a very small proportion of the number of travellers questioned, so the sample size is very small. In the ONS’ own words: “Whilst this sample size does allow estimates of migration at the UK level to be made, these estimates are subject to relatively wide margins of uncertainty”.

Student emigration, in particular, is difficult to measure. Whilst students will be clear when they arrive that they are coming to study, they may respond differently on their departure when they are asked what they were doing while they were in the UK. For example, if they worked for a period after their course has finished, they might say they were in the UK to work, creating a skewed net student migration figure. Their movements are also highly seasonal with the vast majority departing at the end of the academic year. There is also a suspicion that postgraduate students enter on Tier 4 visas to undertake a master’s programme over a period of a year, but may complete their studies in less than 12 months and on leaving they’ll be therefore categorised completely differently to when they arrived.

ONS data that suggests that around 100,000 international students overstay their visas should, therefore, be taken with a pinch of salt. A report from The Institute For Public Policy Research (IPPR) compared the IPS estimates to other data sources, such as the Home Office, the Annual Population Survey and the Higher Education Statistics Authority and found large discrepancies. Similarly, a buried Home Office report based on cohort exit checks apparently found that the true number of overstayers is closer to 1%, or 1,500 students. In fact, there is no correlating data that supports the assertion by politicians of the number of student overstayers, based on this ONS data.

In response, the ONS announced this year that they are “working collaboratively with other government departments to investigate what other sources can tell us”, and that this is a “complex” area.

International students are regarded as visa overstayers.
Why is that?


Potentially unreliable data has fuelled the belief that students stay in the country after their Tier 4 student visas have expired. The implication is that many of these students illegally overstay their visas, whilst others stay on legally to work, continue their studies, or for family reasons.

As students are an easy target in the government’s quest to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, the government has seized on this data as justification for restrictions on student visas and post-study work options. For example, at the Conservative party conference last October, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a crackdown on international students and stated that the government was considering “tougher rules for students on lower quality courses”. 

Officials at the Home Office have publically stated that their opinion is now that international students are net neutral to the migration numbers. This implies that all the restrictions that the Home Office has implemented over the last 7 years, which have reduced the numbers of international students coming to the UK to study, have been based on erroneous data and assumptions. In other words, the government has been targeting ‘phantom’ students overstayers.