Visa crackdown shows why students shouldn’t be classed as immigrants

International students spend billions in the UK and the vast majority return home. So why do anti-immigration measures target them, asks Ben Moore

May 29, 2023
Passport with denied visa stamp on a map of the world
Source: iStock

That its universities attract talent from around the world is one of the UK’s success stories and should be a source of pride. The arguments are well rehearsed at this point: international students bring in vital export income and support regional economies. They enrich the learning environment for domestic students. And they support the provision of high-quality education and research across the country. 

Indeed, successive governments have recognised this, with a welcome shift in rhetoric and policy in recent years, from the “hostile environment” to the reintroduction of post-study work rights and an International Education Strategy seeking to bring 600,000 international students to the UK annually by 2030 (a target that was already reached by 2020/21).

And yet, when pressure to reduce net immigration grows, talk of cutting student numbers is never far off the agenda. Last week was no different. The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data revealing record high net immigration figures came just two days after the government announced new restrictions on student migration.

Rising net immigration is at least in part the result of new visa routes aimed at supporting Ukrainian, Afghan and Hong Kong nationals. Yet it is the increase in international student numbers, as the UK cements its place as the second most attractive destination behind the US, that has received the most political scrutiny despite the fact that student immigration is temporary and generates more in export earnings than the entire UK pharmaceutical industry.  

While the headline measure places limits on student dependants rather than students, this was only one of five policies that were reportedly under consideration by the home secretary, two of which were aimed at international students themselves.

The Department for Education and other government departments have so far managed to resist the most damaging proposals – such as changes to the graduate route – but this rhetoric still damages the perception of the UK as a study destination. And the restrictions on dependants will have a real impact on the attractiveness of the UK to prospective students, particularly those from countries such as Nigeria and India.

This seems contrary to the government’s growth agenda, with reports last week showing that international students generate a net economic impact of £37.4 billion to the UK. But while students are counted and presented as immigrants in official net migration figures, the predictable political response to high numbers will remain. While the government no longer has a formal net migration target, the home secretary and prime minister have outlined aspirations to reduce net migration from today’s levels.

It is understandable that there is wariness of making a technical change that would lower net migration figures. But there is a clear case to be made. Most international students are here temporarily, making a significant net contribution to communities across the country before they return home. 

It was therefore positive to see last Thursday’s ONS article exploring ways in which students could be separated out from other migrants in the net migration figures. The ONS has committed to consulting on these options over the coming months and to publish further information in November.  

The UK’s major competitor countries, the US, Australia and Canada, explicitly recognise international students as temporary migrants in official statistics. The US classifies international students as “non-immigrants” and Canada includes international students in statistics on “non-permanent residents”, a group Statistics Canada says are not considered immigrants.  

Such definitions also reflect how the British public perceive international students in the UK – less than a third of respondents to a recent poll thought international students should be classed as immigrants in official figures.  

International students are afforded near-identical rights in the UK as they are in US, Australia and Canada, so there is no reason they should be thought of as longer-term migrants. UK student visas offer time-limited stay, with no option to apply for settlement at the end of studies. Graduates can apply for a post-study work visa, typically allowing two years’ temporary leave to remain in the UK to look for work – but, again, this is not a path to permanent residence.  

Long-term migration trends captured by the Home Office show that only a small minority of international students become permanent residents. Just 6 per cent of those who came to the UK in 2011 were granted settlement a decade later, for instance.  

Recording and explicitly presenting international students as temporary migrants could allow us to avoid reactionary rhetoric and policy driven by a desire to simply “cut numbers”. Rather, it would encourage a more nuanced approach, whereby the government and university sector worked together to identify genuine issues and consider how we might address these in a targeted way.  

Ben Moore is policy manager at the Russell Group.

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