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Migration and international students

Informing the debate by providing accurate migration data

Published: 16 November 2018

With the government looking to markedly reduce net migration figures, debate is ongoing as to whether international students should be included within those figures. Southampton research is shaping policy by providing survey data on migration.

Migration is an important issue in the UK, and, since Brexit, has dominated politics and national debate. The debate has been heightened by government focus on reducing net migration to the tens of thousands per year. A key part of the discussion is whether to reverse the current policy of including international students in the migration figures. By so doing, it is argued, the UK would present a more welcoming environment to international students who bring economic and cultural benefits to the country.

Before any meaningful debate can be conducted, the data on student migration need to be accurate. This is where Southampton has played a vital role, explains Jackie Wahba, Professor of Economics at the University. Jackie is also part of the research team at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Centre for Population Change, where she jointly leads migration research.

“We were approached by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) who have been trying to understand student migration better. Together with Professor Jane Falkingham and Professor Corrado Giulietti, I worked with the ONS and Universities UK to conduct a survey on all graduating non-UK students in the UK,” says Jackie.

We got a very good sample of students, over 3,500 non-UK undergraduates and postgraduates from over 50 universities in the UK. Based on that survey, it was very clear that the intention of the majority was to leave. Of those that planned to stay indefinitely (just 16 per cent), under one in five planned to continue their studies, meaning that overall, less than 10 per cent of respondents planned to stay indefinitely and find a job.

Jackie Wahba - Professor of Economics
Professor Jackie Wahba

The findings came in August 2017 – the same time as the ONS was able to access exit checks (in which information included in passports or travel documents is collected for passengers leaving the country). When put together with the International Passenger Survey data (based on interviews with passengers entering and leaving the country), this created a more reliable picture of student migration than was previously possible.

“For international students in particular, it was clear that all the information was consistent. Prior to this, the perception had been that students were overstaying and contributing to net migration figures much more than they actually should have been.” Jackie hopes that the findings will help inform the debate and raise questions over the effectiveness of any restrictive policies towards international student migration.

We have since done a follow-up survey to check whether the original intentions of graduating students did materialise, or change, and now we are analysing those results. Analysing longitudinal data – basically observing the same set of graduates twice for this information – has not been done before.

Jackie Wahba - Professor of Economics

Jackie presented this research at the University’s Public Lecture Series on Population and Migration in October 2018. View the video of the lecture here.

Related Staff Member

Find out more about the ESRC Centre for Population Change.

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