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HEi-think: What is the government's problem with international students?

The latest parliamentary exchange between MPs and Prime Minister Theresa May over net migration targets and international students sheds some light on the government's position, says Mike Ratcliffe, Oxford-based university administrator and Director of More Means Better.

 

A lot of parliamentary time has been given over to this question in recent weeks with debates in Westminster Hall and the House of Lords. The ‘problem’ appears to be two-fold: that in the past there were abuses of the student visa route and that the government wants to reduce net migration.

This week has brought an exchange at the ‘Liaison Committee’ – the combined select committee chairs who get to ask the Prime Minister questions.  The committee’s session on 20 December had a strong Brexit theme, but there was time for Yvette Cooper to ask about international students in the context of migration targets. Although, as you can see, Theresa May didn’t really answer the questions, but that captured the two sides to the problem:

Q57 Yvette Cooper: Your Chancellor, your Foreign Secretary, your Home Secretary and the previous Chancellor have all said that they would have refused to endorse your target. In fact, they refer to it as your target on net migration and refuse to endorse having that net migration target with students in it. Do you think that it is now time to remove students from your net migration target?
 

Mrs May: Students are in our migration figures because we adopt—

 

Q58 Yvette Cooper: The target—you choose the target. The figures are different from the target. Do you choose the target?

 

Mrs May: With due respect, the target figures are calculated from the overall migration figures, and students are in the overall migration figures because it is an international definition of migration—

 

Yvette Cooper: But you choose what to target.

 

Mrs May—that is used by countries around the world. Having students in that overall migration figure actually showed us, when we first came into government, that what we had seen in the previous 13 years of Labour Government was significant abuse of the student visa system into the United Kingdom. That is why something like over 900 colleges are no longer able to bring students in, because they were not offering an education to individuals coming into this country; effectively, it was a backdoor route into working in the UK. We have been able to reduce abuse of the student visa system by looking at those figures and focusing on them and we retain an international definition.

 

Q59 Yvette Cooper: But you don’t have a way to meet the target; it’s a bit of a mess on immigration, isn’t it?

 

Q60 Chair [Andrew Tyrie]: Just to be clear, Prime Minister, that abuse has largely been sorted out. Most people agree that students are a huge success story for the UK. They are a major British export, quite unlike the concerns that were expressed during the debate during the referendum about migration generally. Don’t you think it might be a good idea to reconsider that decision?

 

Mrs May: We use, Chairman, the international definition of migration. It is perfectly simple; it is used by countries around the world when they are looking at their immigration systems and we use it as the United States does and as other countries do.

 

Q61 Chair [Andrew Tyrie]: So was that a no?

 

Mrs May: We use the international definition and students are in the international definition.

First, the abuse question.  It is clear that there were some bogus colleges that were, rather improbably, approved by the Home Office to sponsor students.  The late Sir David Watson noted a strength of UK higher education is our ‘controlled reputational range’, so this absolutely needed clamping down on.  However, it is wrong to assume that every one of the 900 colleges referred to was bogus.  In fact, the Home Office hasn’t got an accurate number for how many were bogus – that 900 refers to colleges who have left the register at some point since 2010.  The 900 includes colleges who’ve gone back on the register and many bone fide places who gave up sponsoring students in the face of fierce administrative systems.  

Andrew Tyrie is correct to point out that the abuses have been largely sorted out.  Here is a particular issue for Government.  It cannot easily now claim that abuses have continued.  That would be an implicit criticism of the former Home Secretary (now Prime Minister) and her two longer serving Immigration ministers (who are both in the Cabinet now).

That leaves the net migration target.   In the last two General Elections the Conservative Party has made a commitment to deliver ‘annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands’. The ONS reported net migration at June 2016 as +335,000 (comprising +189,000 EU citizens, +196,000 non-EU citizens and -49,000 British citizens).   Students are included in these flows, the ONS estimating 163,000 arriving to study.  If net migration is to be below 100,000, then students would have to be reduced.  However, Government makes it clear that there is no cap on the number of genuine students.  These two positions do appear to be contradictory.  

The argument that Yvette Cooper refers to is that, apart from Theresa May, there is a startling consensus that students should be excluded from this target.  The student visa is a tightly controlled route into the UK now.   As currently framed, it only facilitates an individual coming, taking a course, and going home again.   The UN definition of long-term immigrant would appear to be applicable to students. But as Cooper points out, while the ONS might report students in their net migration figures, the target is a political creation – it could and should treat students differently.

What makes this matter more now is the discussions about Brexit and the news delivered at the Conservative Party conference that Home Secretary Amber Rudd wants to further restrict international student numbers.  Students are currently moving as freely as anyone else in the EU and are treated to the same fee regime as home students.  If the net migration target was applied after any end of free movement, then this would have a further damaging effect – Leave campaigners noted that EU students paying full fees might increase (although not many universities will be planning for that to happen). 

Worst is the news that Amber Rudd wants to look at ‘tougher rules for students on lower quality courses’, clearly with a view to bring those migrant student numbers down.   A lot of guesswork is going into what the Home Secretary might mean here. It could just be increasing the ‘pass mark’ set by the immigration metrics, but it could also be linked to TEF; raising the stakes even higher on that unloved project.  Whatever they propose, it comes back to the desire to reduce net migration below an arbitrary target where genuine students ought not to be counted at all.

Overseas student numbers part of a "political target"
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