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Daily Mail article on international students: refuting misleading claims

Jo Attwooll

Jo Attwooll

Chief of Staff
Universities UK

An article in today's Daily Mail once again thrusts the data on international students firmly into the spotlight.

The article begins with a claim that 'official figures have highlighted the scale of abuse of the system by immigrants desperate to stay in the UK after finishing their education', and goes on to assert that this will 'fuel concerns' about the extent to which non-EU students are 'able to exploit the rules after enrolling on courses'.

This issue is not new. Back in 2013, UUK established its Commission on International Student Destinations to examine the data on international students completing their courses in the UK. The Commission reported its findings in 2014. Since then, claims and counter-claims have persisted about the extent to which the data proves that students make a significant contribution to net migration.

So, amidst the dog-whistle conjecture of this most recent coverage, what's the real story?

Do the official figures highlight the scale of the abuse of the system?

No. The official figures, based on the sample International Passenger Survey (IPS), highlight a gap between the numbers of students recorded as entering the UK and the number of former students recorded as departing. This gap is unexplained and long-standing concerns persist about the accuracy of the IPS in measuring migration trends.

In 2013, the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry on migration statistics concluded that the government must plan to end its reliance on the IPS as the primary method of estimating migration as 'it is not fit for the purposes to which it is put'. 

In the same year, the UK Statistics Authority stated that the IPS' 'estimation of emigration (including overseas students returning home) is particularly problematic and contributes to substantial uncertainty in the net migration estimates for the UK…'

Since then the ONS itself has recognised that there may be inherent problems with the IPS, stating in a 2016 publication that one of the reasons for the gap is 'the IPS not completely recording student flows…'. The ONS has launched a programme of work to try and understand the reason behind the gap in the data – this work is ongoing​.

Elsewhere, other evidence has been gathered which suggests that levels of illegal overstaying amongst international students are a fraction of what has previously been claimed. In October 2016, a front-page​ story in The Times referred to an unpublished government report suggesting that 1% of international students overstay. In its response to The Times report Migration Watch speculated that one possibility is that the immigration statistics are seriously unreliable.

During a Home Affairs Select Committee appearance in January 2017, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd was questioned directly on the existence of the unpublished data and stated 'I would like to have much more certain information about who comes and goes from the United Kingdom. The Home Office is now working with the ONS to try to establish what is going on…. I want to make sure that we have the earliest opportunity to get the correct information on how many students are staying and how many are not.' Hardly a ringing endorsement of the existing data.

These debates highlight a far bigger issue – that the government is using insufficient data to make policy decisions which are critical to the national interest. Future policy decisions on student visas should be put on hold until better data is available. 

To what extent are non-EU students able to exploit the rules after enrolling on courses?

There is little scope for non-EU students to exploit the rules due to the many checks and balances in place within the student visa system. Non-EU students are subject to a credibility interview to obtain leave to enter the UK, have clear restrictions on their permitted working hours and must regularly attend their courses or face curtailment of their visas. Further, the universities sponsoring them are required to meet minimum thresholds on visa refusals, student enrolments and course completion rates. A failure to meet these thresholds will result in removal of their licence to recruit non-EU students.

And what about the other claims in the article?

Does the failure to send overseas graduates home add to the pressure piled on public services?

International students have no recourse to public funds so cannot access benefits. They are also required to pay the NHS surcharge. The surcharge would still be chargeable to those extending their stay in the UK as either a student or once they switch to graduate employment.

Numerous cost-benefit studies have shown that international students contribute far more to the UK than they take out with a 2013 study showing the net benefit of international students to Sheffield was £120m per year and a 2015 report showing the net benefit to London was £2.3bn. Further, the economic benefits of international students extend to every region of the UK as demonstrated by UUK’s recent economic impact study.

Do tens of thousands just disappear into the black economy?

There is no evidence to suggest this is the case.

Home Office study in 2010 showed that non-compliance amongst university sponsored students was at most 2%. Since then significant changes have happened within the student visa system with the objective of further reducing any extant abuse of the student route.

Further, the Home Office's Migrant Journey studies consistently show that the clear majority of international students have left the immigration system within five years of entering as a student.

The article in The Times from October 2016 also raises the possibility that there is significant data not yet within the public domain which may help to clear up this debate once and for all. The sooner that data is in the public domain the sooner we can end the unhelpful and damaging speculation and move the debate on. 

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David Jones
David Jones says:
12 April 2017 at 11:38

Well done Jo Attwoll: a lucid and much-needed repudiation of the Daily Mail's pernicious article. David Jones, CEO, Kaplan International

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