MAC report: curious earnings figures and a hush on net migrant target

John Morgan puzzles over committee’s use of questionable graduate earnings data as basis to reject return of post-study work visas

September 11, 2018
Theresa May entering 10 Downing Street, London
Source: Getty

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.

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Reader's comments (3)

Manning is out of touch from reality. The reason why students take longer to find a skilled job is not because they are not the most highly skilled but because the system is inherently against them finding a skilled job. For example, employers are continually incentivised to hire a local person even if the overseas graduate is more qualified. Most (not all) jobs advertised explicitly excludes people needing a work permit - discouraging most overseas graduates. Those who are open to hiring overseas graduates put them on the lowest possible salaries - because of course its already very expensive to sponsor a migrant and the migrant would likely prioritise the permit over the salary regardless of their skill.
Good news for UK home grown graduates as they already have to compete in the tough market. At times it may be worth it to go for home grown high 2.1 graduates than the first class overseas graduates. If the highest skill was the only factor than we might as well get rid of incompetent civil service government and hire more able foreign experts e.g. Japanese or Chinese geniuses to run our government.
Governments of course operate in a completely different way and has very distinct principles than any other employer so to use that as an argument against the hiring of foreign talent is quite weak. In any case, the "foreign talent" we're talking about here is HOME GROWN - these are UK-educated international students who are in many ways being prevented from participating in the graduate labour market in the UK. I don't disagree that the graduate labour market is tough. But whatever happens anyway, UK policy will always be more advantageous for British students and that's a fact (even if post-study visa return, although unlikely). What's entirely misguided is this idea that non-EU students are taking jobs away from local graduates when 97% of non-EU graduates leave the country after their studies!! (See So to further tighten policies around non-EU graduates from being hired in the country that educated them is a little ridiculous and again out of touch.