Amber Rudd, the UK’s home secretary, “deserves real credit” for pushing through a review of the impact of overseas students, seen as an attempt to secure evidence for a shift in government policy, a sector expert has said.
The government announced on 24 August that it would commission the independent Migration Advisory Committee to “evaluate the impact made by international students” in the UK, particularly their economic and societal impacts. The group of experts will report back by September 2018.
On the same day, the Home Office published new exit check data showing that, among non-European Union students whose visa expired in 2016-17, 97.4 per cent were recorded as having departed the country while their visas were still valid. That left just 4,617 students who may have overstayed their visas.
Previous Home Office claims that about 100,000 students a year were overstaying their visas, based on discredited data gathered under a previous form of exit checks, formed much of the policy basis for the Conservative government’s harsh stance on student visas under Theresa May’s regime as home secretary and then as prime minister.
Office for National Statistics analysis of the new exit check data found that there was “no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay”, delivering a major result for Universities UK and other sector groups, which have long warned against basing policy on flawed exit check data.
Some in the sector suggest that, contrary to public appearances, Ms May does not have strong feelings on the overseas student issue, and that the hardline stance was driven primarily by her former adviser Nick Timothy, now departed from government after a disastrous general election result for the Tories.
Mr Timothy’s exit may have opened the door for Ms Rudd to try to create an environment where it becomes logical to change policy and, if the MAC were to show that the benefits to the UK of attracting international students far outweigh the costs, that could provide the evidence needed for a change.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as universities minister, said that he had long called for an MAC review of overseas students and had “used to lobby for it” in government.
“A proper investigation will show some of the worst fears of the Home Office are unfounded, and Amber Rudd deserves real credit for pushing this through,” he said. “Clearly, it does reflect the changed political environment since the election, too.”
Senior sector figures believe that the key outcomes in government policy change, potentially arising from the MAC assessment, might include increased efforts by ministers to promote the UK as a destination for international students, the return of a post-study work visa (particularly important in any attempt to regain lost market share in Indian students), and the removal of students from the net migration target.
However, taking students out of the target is now seen as reduced in importance because data showing that there is no evidence of an “overstayer” problem confirm that students are not long-term migrants, which removes the incentive to try to drive down international student numbers.
Ms Rudd’s letter to the MAC says: “Any post-study provisions must strike a careful balance between providing competitive options for the brightest graduates from around the globe to remain in the UK to work, while also maintaining safeguards against the type of widespread abuse that was seen under former post-study work schemes. We therefore have no plans to reintroduce a post-study work route that does not lead to skilled work.”