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The University of Southampton
EconomicsPart of Economic, Social and Political Science

Improving the measurement of international student migration in the UK

The accuracy of the estimates of international student migration is crucial, as they not only directly feed into aggregate national migration statistics, but are also used to inform immigration policy that eventually affects prospective international students and the whole Higher Education sector. Research at the University of Southampton has been instrumental in ensuring the rigour and accuracy of UK student migration statistics.


Graduates throwing hates

The higher education sector has held longstanding concerns over the accuracy of the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) data on student migration, believing that they overestimate the number of students that overstay their visa. Such data have been used by the UK Government to justify implementing a more restrictive student immigration regime.

Research challenge

In collaboration with the ONS, Universities UK (UUK) and Southampton’s ESRC Centre for Population Change, Professors Corrado Giulietti and Jackline Wahba drew on their rich body of research on international migration to develop a methodology that captures potential gaps in existing migration statistics – in particular, the International Passenger Survey.

The Survey of Graduation International Studies (SoGIS) captured mobility patterns of international students whilst studying in the UK, their future intentions on staying or leaving the UK after graduation, and the certainty of these intentions.

The students’ actual migration behaviour, and the reasons behind it, were captured six months later.

The findings showed that about 9 out of 10 international students who initially expressed the intention to leave the UK immediately after graduation did actually leave.

The results were consistent with the statistics from the Home Office’s Exit Checks that were developed in parallel to the study, and which show that only 4,600 international students overstayed their visas in 2016, in stark contrast to previous suggestions from the government that the number was about 100,000.

Influencing statistics methodology at the ONS

Following the research, the ONS concluded that the existing student net migration statistics were likely to be overestimated, and committed to improving student migration statistics by including the new survey in their code of practice.

Subsequently, the ONS has extensively used the survey and its findings when providing evidence to Government-led consultations on international students, including those undertaken by the Migration Advisory Committee and the Cross-Whitehall Group.

Influencing government policy and a new visa

The findings of the comparisons with the Home Office’s Exit Checks led Foreign Secretary Amber Rudd to commission the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to review the impacts of international students in the UK in 2017.

This is the first time a review was commissioned to inform the debate at a time of controversy over the role of foreign students in the UK, and over the stricter visa conditions on international students due to concerns about over-stayers – which resulted in a fall in the numbers of non-EU students coming to study in the UK.

Following the MAC’s review in 2019, the Government announced a new two-year post-study work visa allowing international students to study and then stay to gain work experience in the UK – a move that was considered a major boost for the growing number of students from India, which reached almost 22,000 in 2018-19.

Use of the findings by the Higher Education sector

The findings of the research were used by Universities UK (UUK) and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to highlight that previous ONS statistics overestimated the emigration gap – that is, the difference between the number of foreign students entering the country and those leaving.

The research gave HEIs and the public sector the opportunity to re-emphasise the value of international students to the UK. UUK relied on the work to document the positive fiscal impact of international students, while the Greater London Authority used the findings to document low labour market participation and very low uptake of health services among international students in the UK.

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