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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?

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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?

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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.


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.