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Correcting misleading portrayals of international students

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK
International students

A recent article in the Sunday Telegraph portrays a misleading picture of international university students who come to the UK.

Firstly, although the Home Office categorises international students as “migrants”, the majority of the public do not. Polls have shown that only 22% of the UK public consider international students to be immigrants, and that most people feel positively towards students who come here to study, recognising the contribution they make to Britain financially, culturally and academically.

The article suggests that the UK’s immigration rules are “very generous” for international students when, in fact, we have one of the strictest student visa systems in the world. For example, anyone seeking to stay on after finishing their initial course of study must prove that their new course represents academic progression and also fits within the maximum length of study time permitted in the UK – currently five years, a limitation which does not exist in other countries’ visa systems.

Meanwhile, for those wishing to gain some post-study work experience in the UK (an integral part of the overall offer to many), there are very tight rules in place. Graduates have limited time to find a job which has to be: graduate level; meet a minimum salary requirement, and be with a registered Tier 2 sponsor (which not all companies are). These restrictions are in stark contrast to the USA and Australia, who are actively enhancing their post-study work opportunities.

The article also misleadingly suggests that student net migration is 91,000. The reality is that we do not yet have reliable data on students actually leaving the country, and it will be some time before -official data on ‘exit checks’ is available]. Until then, policy makers have to rely on the International Passenger Survey (IPS).  However, the IPS figures are based on interviews of around 4,500 passengers entering and leaving the UK over a 12-month period and within that they interview a much smaller number of international students. Even at the aggregated level, the migration estimates come with sometimes substantial margins of error, possibly affected by unknown biases. In 2013 the Public Administration Committee concluded that the IPS is “inadequate for measuring, managing and understanding the levels of migration that are now typical in the UK. The Government must plan to end reliance on the International Passenger Survey as the primary method of estimating migration: it is not fit for the purposes to which it is put”.

It is unclear what evidence “shows that more than 80 per cent of foreign students seek to stay in the UK at the end of their course”. A Hobsons survey showed that, when it comes to choosing in which country to study, international students rank an “ability to get permanent residency” among the least important factors influencing their decision. Reflecting this point, Home Office data shows that, in 2014, only 7,000 students were granted an extension of stay in the UK to work.  These relatively low figures contrast with public perceptions: according to opinion polls, 75% of the UK public think that international students should be allowed to stay and work for at least a period of time after graduating from a university here.

By focusing purely on the numbers, the article ignores the significant impact international students have on regions and nations across the UK. In addition to enriching the academic experience and campus-life, international students contributed £7 billion to the UK economy in 2011-12, supporting 137,000 jobs. In the South West of England alone, students from outside the UK helped generate £558 million in export earnings for the region.

If the UK is to remain internationally competitive, it should be looking to broaden, not limit, efforts to attract qualified international students and graduates. Whilst continuing efforts to tackle any abuse of the system, we must ensure we present a welcoming climate for genuine international students and ensure that visa and immigration rules are proportionate, not destructive.

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Joyline Chalmers
Joyline Chalmers says:
27 May 2016 at 18:39

Home office policy is not fair to those who has genuine intention of studying, working and living in the UK. I am married into a Scottish guy who's paying for my study, has two houses and we have a child. I will be taking my honours undergraduate degree this year and the visa extension requirement is just horrendous. My husband and myself don't understand why we need to keep that pile of money just to get another year of visa extension. It's not fair in a way that my family is here, I am studying to get a qualification, get a good paying job and live with my family till I retire. Why it has to be too much if the intention is to live a normal life with my family?