The Migration Advisory Committee describes itself as “an independent, non-statutory, non-time limited, non-departmental public body that advises the government on migration issues”.
I came away from today’s media briefing on the MAC report on the impact of overseas students questioning why an independent body has so little interest in the motor driving so much of current migration policy – the government’s target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” – and questioning the research that it carried out to justify rejecting the return of post-study work visas.
Universities UK has called for non-European Union graduates to be allowed to stay on for work for two years after graduation to increase the attractiveness of the nation as a study destination (post-study work visas were abolished in 2012 when Theresa May was home secretary).
At the briefing, Alan Manning, the London School of Economics professor of economics who chairs the MAC, explained to journalists why the committee rejected the idea of a post-study work visa.
“Our reason for that is that we don’t think that the students who are likely to take longer to find a skilled job after the conclusion of their studies are likely to be the most highly skilled,” he said.
“Even at the moment, the earnings of some of the non-EU graduates in the years after graduation seem surprisingly low: something like 25 per cent do not seem to be earning much more than you would get from working full-time at minimum wage.”
Manning’s foreword to the report offers the same justification: “One reason for not recommending a longer post-study work period is that the earnings of some graduates who remain in the UK seem surprisingly low and it is likely that those who would benefit from a longer period to find a graduate level job are not the most highly skilled.”
These figures, detailed in the report, come from the government’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes data on 2015-16 earnings for those who graduated two years earlier (which the Department for Education describes as “experimental” data – the figures do not take account of regional earnings variations for one thing).
What page 97 of the MAC report says on the LEO data is this: “For undergraduates, the average earnings are slightly higher for international students than for UK [£14,100 against £13,400 in the lower quartile of earnings], and for Level 8 postgraduate research students the pay distributions are similar between domicile groups.
“There is more of a marked difference in earnings of those who had undertaken a postgraduate taught level qualification [a master’s]; at the lower quartile, where earnings for overseas students were noticeably lower, at £15,400. This data suggests that more than 25 per cent of non-EU Level 7 taught graduates have earnings close to what one could obtain by working full-time at the minimum wage and well below the minimum salary threshold for Tier 2, the main work-related route.”
So Manning seems to cite only the data on taught master’s students (not making clear that this data applies to master’s students only) and seems to ignore the findings on undergraduates, which show non-EU graduates gaining higher earnings than UK graduates.
The main body of the report is more accurate in its wording: "While many international students who remain in the UK for work report levels of earnings similar to UK graduates, a sizeable group of non-EU students seem to have surprisingly low earnings."
I’m left scratching my head even harder by the fact that one change the MAC does recommend is extending the “post-study leave period” to six months for master’s students. Which is odd, given that the report highlights concerns about the earnings of non-EU master's students.
Rather startlingly, Manning says in his foreword on the “surprisingly low” earnings figures for some non-EU graduates (the taught master’s ones): “We accept that the evidence for this is not as strong as it could be: one of our recommendations is that there is a proper evaluation, by us or others, of what students are doing in the post-study period and when they move onto other work permits. If, after that evaluation, a longer post-study work period seems warranted our advice could change.”
Is the LEO data, selectively interpreted and which Manning admits is “not as strong as it could be”, the main basis for the MAC’s position of rejecting post-study work visas? If so, it is not a sound basis.
The MAC also rejected the idea of removing students from the government’s net migrant count, an idea long resisted by Theresa May as home secretary and now prime minister.
Manning says in his foreword: “If there is a problem with students in the net migration target, it is with the target itself rather than the inclusion of students in that target. Summarising migration policy through the net migration target may give the impression that government seeks to reduce the net migration of all types of migrants including students.”
In its conclusion, the report offers a number of options on net migration figures, including that “the government could…choose not to have a target at all and summarise its ambitions on net migration in a different way”.
I asked Manning why the report confined itself to questioning the target rather than directly criticising it.
“I don’t think what we say is questioning,” he replied, seeming to pull back from the words of the report. “Our view is the net migration target – that’s a political objective…We don’t get into politics.”
He subsequently added: “We sort of don’t really pass any judgement at all on the wisdom or otherwise of the net migration target.”
Following today’s report, some are arguing that the MAC is a creature of the Home Office. The committee has certainly avoided any conclusions that might perturb May and the Home Office in their long-held views on both post-study work visas and the net migrant target, going via some odd routes to reach this destination.