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The University of Southampton

Survey prompts calls to subtract international students from UK migration numbers

Published: 31 August 2017
International students on campus
Over 3,500 students responded to the 2017 Survey of Graduating International Students

A new survey which provides much-needed insight into the intentions of UK-based international students following their higher education studies has prompted calls to remove international students from the government’s net migration target.

Professor Jane Falkingham, Director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change (CPC) at the University of Southampton, believes that the results of the Survey of Graduating International Students, raises questions about the effectiveness of restrictive UK government policies towards international student migration and the long-term impact that such interventions could have on the attractiveness of Higher Education in the country.

The Survey, conducted by the CPC in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics and Universities UK, found that the majority of international students intend to leave the UK when they finish studying with 33% saying they planned to leave the UK immediately while a further 36% reported they would leave the UK within 12 months. Only 15% of respondents indicated they would like to stay in the UK for longer than a year and 16% would like to stay permanently (22% of EU students and 13% non-EU students).

When asked what activities they plan to do after they finish their current studies, around 15% of international students said they planned to go on to further studies in the UK, whilst 11% planned to study further elsewhere. One in five of non-EU students intended to look for jobs outside the UK and a further one in five wanted to look for a job inside the UK after finishing their current course, whilst just 5% of non-EU students had already secured a post-study job in the UK.

Interestingly when asked, the majority of respondents were not completely certain of their plans, – highlighting that international student journeys are complex and that their intentions may change over time. This raises issues for the International Passenger Survey (IPS) - the primary source of data on migration to and from the UK - on their questions regarding intentions to stay.

Each year, the UK attracts large numbers of international students, second only to the US. Estimates from the IPS show that the number of migrants moving to the UK for study purposes was 132,000 in the year ending December 2016. Over the same period, 63,000 former students are estimated to have emigrated from the UK, and this gap between ‘arrives’ and ‘leavers’ has been used to suggest that (assuming immigration has remained steady) some 69,000 international students remain in the UK after completing their studies.

“International student migration, and in particular its impact on the Government’s net migration target, is an area that has received considerable attention and debate in recent years. Many commentators have questioned whether the IPS is the best source of data for estimating the movements of students,” says Professor Falkingham.” This is confirmed by recent analysis from ONS and the Home Office of new Visa exit data that shows that only a small minority of international students did not exit when their visa expired.

“If the government is overestimating the number of international students who are staying on in the UK, then including such students in the net migration target and enacting increasingly restrictive policies with the aim of reducing this figure, may be misplaced; indeed, it may even run the risk of harming UK PLC as the international education sector makes a significant contribution to the UK’s service exports.” said Professor Falkingham. “The time has now come to remove international students from the net migration target and to treat students as temporary migrants, as is the case in Australia, Canada and the USA.

“It is also time to reinstate the post-study visa,” Professor Falkingham contends. “Such a move would help boost the number of students coming to study here and would not add undue pressure on to public services.

“Removing the post study visa – a policy directly aimed at reducing net international student migration - may mean that highly skilled and well-integrated migrants who could help meet the UK’s labour force requirements are forced to leave after completing their studies only to return after jumping through new administrative hoops,” Professor Falkingham adds. “Staying on to work post-study will help close the skills gap – resulting in win-win solution.”

The Survey of Graduating International Students 2017 took place for the first time last Spring drawing 3,560 responses from 51 participating Higher Education Institutions including 13 from the Russell Group of universities.

Respondents stated that they chose to study in the UK because of (1) the international recognition of UK qualifications, (2) the university reputation and (3) the language. The majority said they relied on self-funding (including help from family) to finance their studies in the UK. Almost half had family or friends living in the UK before arriving.

When asked about their use of health services just 8% had visited A&E in the past 12 months, perhaps not surprising when as the majority of international students report their general health as very good (40%) or good (41%). Less than 2% report bad or very bad health.

As well as supporting UK HEIs, whilst here students contribute to the economy of the towns where they live – with over 50% living in private rented accommodation.

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