A number of years ago, I studied at the London School of Economics - “An International Community in the Heart of London”. My experience was enriched by the presence of students from across the world. As was the case then, the United Kingdom remains an attractive destination for international students: they want to come, are worth billions of pounds to our economy, supporting many thousands of jobs. Despite this, we read in the media through 2016 of a planned crackdown on student visas and, most recently, that the Home Office might be considering reducing international student numbers at universities by nearly half.
So what is the issue? People coming to the UK who reside for a year or more are defined as international immigrants, including the relevant students. The public has consistently indicated they believe current immigration levels are too high. The British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), conducted at the National Centre for Social Research, suggests this view is held by every age and occupational grouping, political party identification and even by 1st and 2nd generation migrants. 77% of people want immigration reduced (56% want a large reduction).
The majority of those who come here to study (73%) are non-EU citizens so require student visas (unlike most migrant workers who come from the EU and have free movement). It is therefore not primarily a Brexit issue and visas are under the control of Government. The Conservative Party manifesto maintained an “ambition” of delivering annual net migration “in the tens of thousands”. Net Migration (immigration minus emigration) was 335 thousand in the year to June 2016 with net migration of both EU and non-EU citizens in excess of the Government’s “ambition”.
Despite the headline figures on the level of immigration, the BSA suggests the public actually has quite a nuanced view of international migration. They believe the benefits of non-EU students coming to the UK slightly outweigh the costs but believe the costs of labour and spousal reunion migrants greatly outweigh the benefits. A poll conducted by ComRes in October suggested the majority of people do not view international students as immigrants at all. However, while there are currently no official figures showing how many students remain in the UK after their study, some will stay on both legally and illegally. An ONS report in January 2016 showed a gap between the number of non-EU students immigrating and the number of former students emigrating of around 84,000 on average annually, some of which will be explained by students overstaying visas. 82% think Britain should take strong measures to exclude illegal immigrants.
A relevant policy question is whether we are trying to reduce the overall number of international students or the number overstaying their visas. Some politicians have suggested that students should be excluded altogether from the migration data underpinning the Government’s “ambition”. The existing evidence appears to support a conclusion that most of the public would prefer to target those students that overstay, rather than necessarily choose to reduce overall numbers. The practicalities of achieving that may prove more difficult.