The Home Office could be targeting international students that do not exist in its bid to reduce net migration, according to a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
The thinktank said that the government has relied on “highly questionable data” that suggest that overseas students staying in the UK after their studies make up a large proportion of net migration. The IPPR said that while ministers have claimed that about 90,000 non-EU students are not leaving after completing their courses, based on International Passenger Survey (IPS) data, other sources suggest these figures are much lower.
It cited Home Office visa figures that suggest that only 40,000 non-EU individuals who came to the UK on student visas still have valid leave to remain five years later as well as the Annual Population Survey that shows that between 30,000 and 40,000 non-EU migrants who originally arrived as students are still in the UK after five years. The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey also reveals that three-quarters of non-EU university students who are working six months after completing their studies are employed outside the UK.
“While each of these data sources measures slightly different things and has its own methodological limitations, the large discrepancy between the other sources’ figures and that of the IPS suggests that the latter’s 90,000 figure is not reliable enough to be used as a guide for policy,” the IPPR said.
The number of international students coming to the UK has fallen over the past six years and the number enrolling in UK higher education has stagnated, it added.
Marley Morris, research fellow at IPPR, said: “The number of international students coming to the UK is falling, in part because of the government’s efforts to cut net migration to the tens of thousands.
“Our research suggests that many of the students they are targeting may be phantom students who are no longer in the country.
“Following the Brexit vote the government should be doing all it can to secure investment in the UK. But its current self-destructive policy is deterring genuine international students and putting the billions they bring to the UK at real risk.”
The IPPR report, Destination Education: Reforming migration policy on international students to grow the UK’s vital education exports, published on 6 September, said that by relying on “dubious evidence” the government has implemented measures, such as the scrapping of the post-study work visa, that have hit legitimate universities and students across the higher education sector, damaging both the UK’s reputation among international students and the country’s economy.
The thinktank recommended that students should be excluded from net migration figures and the UK should follow Australia’s lead by setting out a 10-year plan for expanding its international education sector, as part of the government’s new industrial strategy. It suggested that this plan could be spearheaded by a new minister for international education and involve reintroducing the post-study work visa for STEM and nursing graduates, allowing visa-holders to apply for any graduate job, with no salary threshold, for 12 months after graduation.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, agreed that the government should remove international students from the government's net migration target.
“Although the UK continues to be one of the most attractive destinations in the world for international students and staff, recruitment figures during the past few years have not done justice to our potential to increase our success in this global growth area,” she said.
“While students continue to be caught up in efforts to bear down on immigration, it feeds the perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome talented students and academics."