The UK government is to commission an expert panel to carry out a “detailed assessment of the social and economic impact of international students” in the country.
The announcement on 24 August coincides with the first publication of exit checks data that will, according to the Home Office, “provide a comprehensive account of the compliance of international students”.
The Office for National Statistics will also release a report as part of its ongoing programme of work looking at the impact of students on net migration, the Home Office said.
The Migration Advisory Committee, an independent group of experts that advises the government, will be asked to examine the impact of European Union and non-EU students on the labour market and economy while in the UK. The group will be asked to report back by September 2018.
Universities have long argued that claims of nearly 100,000 students a year failing to leave the country after completing their studies are based on seriously flawed data. The source for these figures is a survey of those leaving the country from airports, ports and train stations.
Last month, the UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation warned that this dataset was “potentially misleading” and “does not bear the weight that is put on it in public debate”.
The Times reported last year that internal figures within the Home Office on the new exit checks suggested that the true total of so-called student overstayers was about 1,500.
If the new exit data do confirm such a picture when published, that will add weight to Universities UK’s long-standing calls for students to be removed from the government’s goal to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”.
Theresa May took a hostile stance against universities on overseas students when she was home secretary. And as prime minister, the Conservative manifesto for her 2017 election campaign pledged to “toughen the visa requirements for students” and to keep students “within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration”.
However, little or nothing has been heard from her or the Home Office on overseas students since the election, which saw Ms May weakened by the Conservatives’ loss of their majority.
If the outcome of the exit data is that it shows low numbers of student overstayers, then universities will feel that the Migration Advisory Committee assessment could be preparing the ground for the easing of the student visa regime and perhaps even the removal of students from the net migration target.
The MAC assessment will include the impact of international students’ tuition fees and other spending on national, regional and local economies and on the education sector, along with the role that students play in contributing to economic growth, and “the impact their recruitment has on the provision and quality of education provided to domestic students”, according to the Home Office.
Amber Rudd, the UK’s home secretary, said: “There is no limit to the number of genuine international students who can come to the UK to study, and the fact that we remain the second most popular global destination for those seeking higher education is something to be proud of.
“We understand how important students from around the world are to our higher education sector, which is a key export for our country, and that’s why we want to have a robust and independent evidence base of their value and the impact they have.”
Alistair Jarvis, UUK’s chief executive, said: “We welcome the government’s commitment to a detailed examination of the net benefits of international students. This is an opportunity to build on the considerable evidence that shows that international students have a very positive impact on the UK economy and local communities.
“Recent research by Oxford Economics showed that international students generate more than £25 billion for the economy and support over 200,000 jobs in communities across the UK.
“International students also enrich our campuses and the experience of UK students, culturally as well as economically. Many return home having built strong professional and personal links that provide long term soft-power benefits to the UK.”