1. After the United States, the UK is the second most popular destination for international students studying outside of their home country, attracted by the reputation that the UK has for outstanding quality education.
2. International students pay considerable amounts in tuition fees and are a much needed revenue stream for universities. Also by spending their money in the local community they create and sustain jobs. We estimate that in 2010/11 non-EU students were worth £6 billion to the UK economy (See here). In 2014, Universities UK estimated this contribution at £7 billion (See here).
3. On return to their home countries, students are more likely to do business with Britain and are often ambassadors for this country making them an important source of ‘soft power’.
4. EEA students are, of course, free to come and go and we would like to see free movement retained for European students when the UK leaves the EU. As for non EEA students, there is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK to study. The UK has a very competitive offer compared to the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, our competitor countries. (See here)
5. The benefits of students are maximised when the majority go home at the end of their studies. If they stay on in significant numbers they add to the population and add to the pressure on housing and public services. Of course, the brightest and best students should be able to stay on for work, to start a business or conduct pioneering research. There are arrangements in place to permit all of these outcomes but the majority of students should be going home once they complete their studies.
6. However, at present the evidence suggests that only slightly more than a third of students are leaving at the end of their studies. The average inflow of non-EU students over the last four years (2012 to 2015) was 127,000 per year but the International Passenger Survey data shows that just 47,000 students departed each year. Thus the annual gap between arriving and departing students has averaged around 80,000 in the last four years, suggesting that students might be staying on in significant numbers.
7. Some of these students will be extending their stay for further studies (an average of 90,000 student extensions were granted per year between 2011 and 2014) and some will also be staying on for work (in 2015, 7,000 students were granted a work visa, for more on this (see here) but, as the ONS itself notes, some will be staying on illegally.
8. In April 2015, the government reintroduced exit checks for those departing the country although the Home Office is yet to publish their findings.
9. The student system has been abused in recent years. In 2008, the then Labour government introduced a new Points Based System for all migrants, including students. The system was a paper based system with no contact with an immigration officer and was therefore wide open to abuse. Applications around the world soared and visa sections in parts of India, China, Bangladesh and Nepal were closed to new applicants for many months amid concerns over fraudulent applications. The National Audit Office subsequently concluded that in the first year of the Points Based System 50,000 ‘students’ came to work rather than study. (See here)
10. In 2012 the government reformed the student route in an attempt to eliminate this abuse. It introduced tougher language requirements as well as interviews. It has also restricted working rights as well as ensuring that only legitimate education establishments can sponsor students. Some 870 colleges have lost the right to recruit international students.
11. As might be expected, the number of students fell as bogus students were refused or withdrew their applications. Some might have been deterred by negative press coverage but this should now have settled.
12. The UK remains a very attractive country in which to live and the student route is one of the easiest ways of getting to the UK now that economic migration has been restricted to those whose skills are needed. The government must therefore remain vigilant to emerging patterns of abuse.
13. It is for this reason that it remains essential that students remain in the net migration statistics. Some have called for them to be excluded but students are counted when they depart as well as when they arrive so they should largely cancel out and there is no need to remove students from net migration statistics. Our major competitors include them. (See here) The public agree (by a margin of 50% to 34%) that students should remain part of net migration calculations (see September 2016 YouGov poll reported here).
Updated November 2016