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Government’s use of student migration data ‘potentially misleading’

Eleanor Jubb

Eleanor Jubb

Policy Analyst
Universities UK

Today's release by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) provides a timely reminder of the widespread concerns about the way we currently measure student migration into and out of the country and the impact that this can have on policy-making. ​

The OSR concludes that the UK government's use of the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) breakdown of international students leaving the UK 'creates doubts about the patterns of student migration' rather than adding clarity, and that it gives rise to a 'potentially misleading' narrative on net migration to the UK (for a particularly egregious example of this, see Jo Attwooll's April blog).

Although the OSR supports the use of the International Passenger Survey (IPS, which the government use to measure net migration) more generally, they're clear that, as it stands, the IPS can't be used as a measure of student net migration because it doesn't accurately reflect the number of students leaving.

Among the issues they identify are:

  • ​​problems with the questions the IPS asks people, which make it harder to identify international students entering or leaving the country; and
  • issues with the way confidence intervals on estimates of international student immigration and emigration are presented, making it harder to see the limitations of the estimates.

And they're worried that these issues threaten the public value of student migration statistics more generally. In fact, they're so worried, that they say that the statistics, including those already released (the statistics on student migration have been released quarterly since 2012) should be labelled as 'experimental'. They also note that estimates of international student net migration will relate to different cohorts of students, given that some courses may be two, three or even four years in length (and may be longer if a student moves from an undergraduate degree to a PhD), and that this could make estimates more confusing for those reading them.​

But in many ways, none of this is news. It's something which was picked up by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee last week, who followed the OSR in highlighting particular difficulties with measuring the number of students leaving the UK after they've completed their studies.

And the ONS is already aware of these issues – indeed, it was their evidence which led the Lords to their conclusion. The OSR report recognises the significant work the ONS is doing to improve their understanding of international student departures, and the difficulty with finding other data to fill the hole here. As highlighted in the OSR's report, we're working with the ONS to better understand how the IPS records international student departures so that we can improve it. The ONS will be publishing something on this work in August, but it isn't likely to be an immediate fix.

Despite the lack of accurate data on levels of international student departures, we know that the majority of the British public doesn't view international students as immigrants, and seven parliamentary committees (four in the House of Lords and three in the Commons) have called for them to be removed from the net migration target. This is something we've called for as well.

In a growing market for international study with increased competition, including students in the net migration target has the potential to damage a world-leading UK export by reducing numbers of international students. That would also prevent prospective international students from benefitting from everything UK universities have to offer them, stop UK students from benefiting from studying alongside international students, and deprive local populations of the great benefits international students bring to the regions they study in.

Statistics might be dull, but good statistics are a necessity, and the OSR's release has highlighted just how lacking they are in this key area. All of this is important because as we prepare to leave the EU, Britain has the opportunity to redesign its immigration system to meet its needs, but without accurate and robust data, the government can't do that. Government needs proper data in order to make evidence-based policy decisions on immigration and without that, it will find it much harder to build a public consensus around any decisions it does make.

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