Migration data: under scrutiny

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Do political and economic trends influence
these negative perceptions of international students?

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The good news is that despite efforts by some members of government to demonise international students, public perception of international students remains largely positive. A 2016 Universities UK poll revealed that only a quarter of British adults see international students as immigrants. Of those that expressed a view, 75% said they would like to see the same number, or more, international students in the UK, and this increased to 87% once information on the economic benefits of international students was provided.

When it comes to international migration, what are the most striking patterns we can find?

The government’s restrictions on student visas have had a negative impact on international student numbers. The most recent ONS statistics revealed that long-term immigration to study saw a statistically significant decrease of 41,000 from YE Sept 2015, risking the UK’s status as one of the world’s most popular study destinations.

Since 2010, ONS data shows that the number of visas issued to international students to study in the UK has declined by 79,000. This is in a global market that, according to the OECD, has grown by over 40% over that period. All our competitors are growing - from the US to Australia, Canada and Ireland - and yet the UK is losing market share in a lucrative market that benefits our economy, jobs, domestic students, universities and our soft power.

The biggest decline has come from Indian students, whose numbers have halved over the last four years, and who were particularly deterred by the removal of the post-study work visa.

Who can benefit from having clear, accurate data on international migration?

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Accurate data will help inform better policy around international students. If the true number of overstayers is very low, then crackdowns on these students will be hard to justify. Our universities, our economy and our local communities all benefit from international students, and would all stand to benefit from a more sensible approach from the government.

Are students more likely to plan to study abroad
if others from their country of origin have done so?

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Students are likely to be influenced by whether their friends or peers choose to study abroad, but other important factors include the desire to gain an internationally recognised qualification at a university with a quality reputation, career prospects, and the opportunity to learn a new language and experience a new culture.

Indian students found employment opportunities to be particularly valuable. There is no evidence to suggest that allowing international students to work for two years after graduation has a negative impact and indeed recent polling by the NUS of domestic students shows that they support this. As does the general public, because the national consultation in 2011 resulted in only 6% of respondents recommending the removal of the post-study work visa route. Despite this, the government, of course, proceeded to remove it anyway in 2012.

A more measured government approach towards international students could include the reintroduction of better post-study work options, helping to make the UK a more appealing study destination.

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Our special thanks to James Pitman, MD Higher Education UK & Europe, Study Group, for answering our questions. Prior to joining Study Group in February 2007, James was Managing Director of the EMEA businesses of Rosetta Stone, a market leading, global e-learning software provider.

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