There are claims that the Government is considering taking foreign students out of the immigration totals. This would certainly be the effect of the first of two amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill will shortly return to the Commons.
There is no dispute about the value that international students bring to our economy, to our universities and to our “soft power” around the world. Indeed, this is the very basis of the Government’s policy. There is absolutely no restriction on the number of students who can be admitted to study in Britain provided, of course, that they are genuine. Nor is there any restriction on the number who can stay on to work, provided that they find graduate level work paying £20,700 a year.
Nonetheless, these amendments are an attempt by the Higher Education lobby, heavily represented in the Lords, to throw off the yoke of Government immigration controls, and to detach themselves from the broader immigration debate.
It is important to be clear that net migration should be largely unaffected by student migration. Students who arrive are cancelled out by previous students who leave. Those who stay on as workers or family members would, of course, add to net migration. At present these two categories amount to about 10,000 a year.
However, students who overstay also show up in the net migration figures. Over the past four years, student net migration has, according to the International Passenger Survey (IPS), averaged 70,000 a year, falling to around 45,000 in the most recent year, but this may be reduced further if reports are confirmed that the exit checks, introduced two years ago, show that larger numbers are, in fact, leaving.
This first amendment calls, in effect, for students to be taken out of the net migration statistics. So, what are the arguments that the government must consider for their continued inclusion?
First, it should be noted that the Home Affairs Select Committee called for their exclusion in their report of 2012. The Coalition Government’s reply confirmed that “All the UK’s major competitors report a net migration figure that includes students.” They added that “The UK will continue to comply with the international definition of net migration.”
There are important practical reasons for this policy. Net migration is the key element in our projected population growth. Indeed, at current rates, it will account for 75 per cent of our population increase of 12 million over the next 25 years. Students have to remain part of net migration for the simple, but important, reason that if they remain in the country – whether for work, marriage or because they overstay – they add to our population.
It would be possible to leave students in net migration while taking them out of the Government’s target, but that is surely a matter for political decision, not for the law. And, politically, the obvious outcome is that the press will add in the student numbers and give the public the impression that the Government is fiddling the figures. This, it is said, is at the heart of the Prime Minister’s resistance – and rightly so. But, if they have to concede to get the Bill through the Commons, it is very important that it be on the basis that the student numbers are published alongside the immigration numbers on each occasion.
The second amendment is even worse. It would prevent the Government from any future tightening of the immigration controls now in place for under-graduates, post-graduates or academic staff.
It is perfectly clear that there has been very serious abuse in the education sector in recent years. Many colleges have been recruiting bogus students and, as a result, about 1,000 have been deprived by the government of their right to recruit overseas. India is often quoted as an example of the negative impact of immigration restrictions. However, the reality is that India was a major source of abuse when the Labour government introduced their Points Based System in 2008. Applications surged in North India, Bangladesh and South China following its introduction; later, in 2012, a National Audit Office report concluded that as many as 50,000 students might have arrived just in the first year of the Points Based System “to work rather than to study”.
In fact, Government policy on students has been remarkably successful. Applications for colleges have fallen from the inflated level of 65,000 in 2010 to about 15,000 in 2016. By contrast, applications for visas for universities in the UK have increased by 17 per cent. Within that, non-Russell Group universities fell by 1.5 per cent, while Russell Group applications increased by a remarkable 47 per cent.
The amendment is confined to universities but they have not been completely innocent in the past. At least three have had their sponsorship status suspended for a period. Universities cannot be rendered immune from any future measures to deal with some new form of abuse that might emerge. Reputation is vital for any educational institute. It is surely in the interests of the universities themselves that this and future governments should not be prevented by law from taking such action as might be needed to protect the reputation of a hugely important national asset.
If, for wider reasons, the pass has to be sold on the first amendment, the line really must be held on the second.