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Further developments on student migration data

24 August 2017
Eleanor Jubb

Eleanor Jubb

Policy Analyst
Universities UK


Today, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Home Office have released a whole suite of information about immigration and international students to great interest​ from the higher education sector.

Perhaps most interestingly, the ONS have also released an update on the work they've been doing looking at international student departures. This has been an area of some controversy, to put it mildly, and what the ONS has to say will be music to the ears of many in the higher education sector. Based on their research, the ONS have said that 'the International Passenger Survey is likely to underestimate student emigration' and 'there is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay'. This fits with the conclusions of a number of other groups recently, including the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee and – importantly – the Office for Statistics Regulation just last month.

The ONS have been helped in their analysis by the introduction of exit checks at UK ports and airports. The checks, based on passenger and embarkation lists, allow government to check whether people with visas have left the UK when they are supposed to have. The Home Office and the ONS have been looking at the exit check data to see if it can help get a picture of international student departures and have today given an initial update on their work.

In contrast to previous estimates of international student departure rates today's releases have found that the overwhelming majority of students comply with the terms of their visas. Of those due to leave between April 2016 and April 2017, over 97% left on time. Given that the matching between different datasets isn't exact and the data doesn't yet cover all routes out of the country (people leaving via the Common Travel Area linking the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, for example), that ~3% figure for potential student over-stayers is a maximum and may include individuals who departed legitimately.

Universities UK has been looking into this area for some time. Back in 2013 we convened the Commission on International Student Destinations, which examined the different possible data sources for looking at what international students went on to do. The Commission found that the most important thing for understanding the international student journey was to bring together a range of data sources and link them. In fact, one of its recommendations was for the establishment of a more sophisticated methodology to consider the various data sources and develop an anticipated outflow figure for international higher education students subject to immigration control.

International student completer migration patterns in 2012


Source: One size fits all? An analysis of the international student’s journey through the UK higher education system, UUK (2014)​

Since then, the Digital Economy Act 2017 has made this much more possible, allowing the ONS and government departments to link together data from the Home Office, the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Department of Work and Pensions, among others. It is significant that the ONS's report highlights the need for cross-governmental working in this area, with a cross-Government Statistical Group now working to improve migration data.

Coming alongside the commissioning of advice from the Migration Advisory Committee on international students, all of this is great news for evidence-based policy making. The work that the ONS and MAC are doing will give a solid basis for redesigning the immigration system following Brexit, and we look forward to supporting them both.​

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