A survey of 3,500 UK-based international students with surprising results

It's time to remove students from migrant numbers and reinstate the post-study work visa, says Jane Falkingham

September 1, 2017
international students and social media

International student migration, and in particular its impact on the government’s net migration target, is an area that has received considerable attention and debate in recent years. The UK attracts large numbers of international students each year, second only to the US.

Estimates from the International Passenger Survey – the primary source of data on migration to and from the UK – show that the number of migrants moving to the UK for study purposes was 132,000 in the year ending December 2016. Over the same period, 63,000 former students are estimated to have emigrated from the UK, suggesting that (assuming immigration has remained steady) some 69,000 international students remain in the UK after completing their studies.

However, commentators (including the Institute for Public Policy Research) have questioned the accuracy of the data, suggesting that the IPS is perhaps not the best source of data for estimating the movements of students. Indeed, statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week found “no evidence” of a major problem with overseas students who study in the UK overstaying their visas, according to the country’s official statistics body. For those on long-term study visas, 97 per cent left the UK in time, leaving 3,340 people unaccounted for. 

If the government has overestimated the number of international students who are staying on in the UK, then including such students in the net migration target and enacting increasingly restrictive policies with the aim of reducing this figure may be misplaced. Indeed, it may even run the risk of harming "UK PLC" as the international education sector makes a significant contribution to the UK’s service exports.

Removing the post-study visa – a policy directly aimed at reducing net international student migration - may mean that highly-skilled and well-integrated migrants who could help meet our labour force requirements are forced to leave after completing their studies, only to return after jumping through new administrative hoops.

In order to shed light on what is behind the gap between "arrivers" and "leavers", and to shed light on whether the IPS questions might indeed benefit from some refining, the ONS collaborated with the ESRC Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton  and Universities UK to conduct an online survey to collect detailed information from UK-based international students in their final year of study. 

The Survey of Graduating International Students aimed to better understand what international students intend to do at the end of their studies and how sure they are of their post-study intentions; the travel patterns of international students; and the extent to which international students engage with public services and the labour market. It took place for the first time in Spring 2017, and the results - published today - are based on 3,560 responses from 51 participating higher education institutions.

The key finding from the survey of students (from more than 130 countries) is that the majority of international students intend to leave the UK when they finish studying; 33 per cent of respondents said they plan to leave the UK immediately, while a further 36 per cent reported that they would leave the UK within 12 months.

Only 15 per cent indicated that they would like to stay in the UK for longer than a year, and 16 per cent would like to stay permanently. Just one in five international students (21 per cent) plan to look for a job in the UK when they finish their current studies, while a mere six per cent have already secured a job in the UK. Fifteen per cent of respondents planned to continue their studies in the UK, while 11 per cent planned to leave the UK to study further.

One in five (19 per cent) intended to look for jobs outside the UK after finishing their current course. Interestingly, when asked about the certainty of these plans, the majority were not completely certain – highlighting issues for the IPS on their questions regarding intentions to stay.

The three main reasons international students stated that they chose the UK were: the international recognition of UK qualifications, the university reputation and the language. The majority of international students relied on self-funding (including help from family) to finance their studies in the UK, and almost half of the respondents had family or friends living in the UK before arriving.

When asked about their use of health services, just eight per cent had visited A&E in the past 12 months – the majority of international students report their general health as very good (40 per cent) or good (41 per cent). Less than two per cent report bad or very bad health.

The survey findings raise questions about the effectiveness of restrictive policies towards international student migration and about the long-term impact that such interventions could have on the attractiveness of UK higher education. The time has now come to remove international students from the net migration target and to treat students as temporary migrants, as is the case in Australia, Canada and the US.

It is also time to reinstate the post-study visa – such a move would help boost the number of students coming to study here and would not add undue pressure on public services. While here, students contribute to the economy of the towns where they reside, with more than half living in private rented accommodation. Staying on to work post-study will help close the skills gap – resulting in win-win solution.

Jane Falkingham, director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton.

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