UK Government Considers Possibility of Excluding Students from Migration Targets


In an important recent development reflecting a potential change in mind-set by the highest echelons of the British Government towards overseas students, ministers have suggested that the government may be looking to remove foreign students from official migration figures.

Currently students travelling to the UK for study are subject to stringent requirements and limitations. Costs have increased for Visa applications and students are not permitted to undertake more than a token amount of paid employment while in the country making it difficult for them to support themselves while studying in the UK. Furthermore, at the completion of their studies, students are required to leave the country immediately and must apply for a separate visa in order to return for work or further study.

In combination with other restrictions this has had an effect of lowering international student growth at a time when other major education destinations are enjoying a huge growth of interest from foreign learners. This has led to urgent calls for a rethink from leading educators and industrial speakers fearing the Britain is losing out on recruiting top talent both to learn and to work by presenting itself as unfriendly and difficult to get to in comparison to its competitors.

Speaking to the House Commons Treasury Committee on the 1st of December, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said: “The current way the UK calculates its migration numbers they are included, but if you talk about the government’s commitment on reducing migration, I would say where that strikes a public chord and has public sympathy is where we are trying to reduce permanent migration to the country. The Government’s ambition is to reduce permanent migration to this country to a more manageable level and at the same time to have a successful university sector in which [international students] come and study and then leave.”


Problems and Challenges

Much of the current problem rests with the political climate in the UK. With public attitudes hardened against immigration politicians have found themselves elected on platforms of limiting migration to the country. This is in marked contrast to the interests of the education and business sectors which both want to attract and keep students and talent in the country.

As a result the policy of the British Home Office and its Secretary Teresa May has been to further reduce overall migration numbers. These have placed a number of further burdens on international students by making visas more expensive and only valid for a shorter period of time. This has also coincided with much more stringent requirements of educational institutions to monitor and report on their students especially where any violation of visa conditions is suspect.

These policies have been causing no end of difficulty for educators. Students who require extra time to re-sit or complete their programmes of study find themselves ineligible to complete their courses because they will be unable to extend their visas. Because of this and other uncertainties, many students are choosing not to study with UK Institutions. For some colleges and universities this has translated to a huge loss in income as they are unable to attract potential learners who are put off by the harsh perception of an unwelcoming Britain.


Division in the Cabinet

Observers have been noting an apparent split in the Government over this debate. The Chancellors comment on the need for a “lively debate in all circles” on the matter of migration counts and the inclusion of student visitors suggest that ministers are not marching in lockstep on the matter. On the one hand, the Home Office under Teresa May continues to push for harsh restrictions. Further restrictions proposed include tougher English language tests for overseas students and restrictions on dependents accompanying post-graduate students.

On the other hand of the debate the Treasury, under the Chancellor and the Business Secretary Sajid Javid who is head of the Department for Innovation, Business and Skills appear more concerned with increasing British exports including those in the Education sector. Britain remains a major player with a great reputation internationally for the quality of the education at its institutions but this industry has been uniquely hit with the restrictions imposed over the prior few years.

Walking the line between the two opposing goals, the Chancellor said; “I think what you have seen is a quite healthy growth in international students in bona fide institutions in what everyone would regard as proper degrees but a very tough and correct clampdown on bogus routes into the country via the student visa system. I think that’s the right balance.”  He also appeared to reject the more hard line proposals including the tougher English tests as not being Government policy at this time.

His comments follow other announcements from the Government which appears to be showing a new emphasis to increase overseas enrolment numbers and raise educational export revenues. In the Autumn Statement, the Treasury committed itself to the goal of increasing foreign student numbers by 55,000 by 2020. In addition, it affirmed that post-graduate dependents could work in the UK during their stay in the UK.

Elsewhere, the Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson has announced an ambitious plan. He intended to increase the country’s overall educational exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020. While no doubt good news for the sector this announcement has generated scepticism about whether or not it can be achieved. This is in light of the significant losses the UK Education sector has taken so far. Reversing the current trends may take longer.


Cautious Optimism

Commentators have nevertheless cautiously welcomed the news that the Government may be considering a rethink in how it regards foreign students studying in the UK.  Notable figures in the UK Education sector including Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge and Universities UK Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge have spoken out against the current policies.

Drawing attention to the fact that most students come to the UK for a defined period, complete their studies and then go home again the consensus is that students should not be counted as migrants for immigration purposes. Sir Lsezek has criticized the current approach as meaning that all the benefits foreign enrolment can bring to the UK were being “sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.”

Further support for the Chancellors comments came from the Institute of Directors (IoD) whose Head of Employment and Skills Policy, Seamus Nevin had the following to say:

“We welcome the Chancellor’s acknowledgement that most students who come to the UK to study are not permanent migrants. Government must follow through on this undeniable logic and remove international students from the net migration target. The [Office of National Statistics] already collects separate figures for students so it would be exceptionally easy to set them aside from the aspiration to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year.”

“Education, particularly higher education, is one of this country’s greatest success stories. Higher education is one of the UK’s biggest exports, adding over £10 billion a year to our economy. If George Osborne wants to boost our universities and our economy, he should take this simple step as soon as possible.”

Optimistically, the intent appears to be growing amongst influential Government ministers to change their approach on the matter of foreign student enrolment. However despite policy announcements to provide some relief to the troubled sector, the wishes of business leaders and educators are still engaged in an uphill battle against a public opinion hostile to the idea of immigration. Prime Minster David Cameron is still believed to support the Home Office goals of stricter migrant restrictions. Uncoupling the perception of student migrants as being the same as other migrants may take more time.

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