As a result of the government’s self-imposed pledge to reduce “net migration” – the total number of immigrants minus the total number of emigrants – to the “tens of thousands” by 2015, the UK is running the risk of losing out in the international competition for valuable student migrants.
The new policy, which came into effect last month, means only graduates with an offer of a skilled job from a sponsoring employer are now eligible to apply for a Tier 2 working visa. This, and other measures, are likely to reduce numbers of genuine students who come to the UK.
The costs could be between £2-3 billion per year, according to new IPPR research published today.
International students are much less likely to stay on in the UK than other migrants, with evidence suggesting that only 15 per cent of students stay permanently, compared to 34 per cent entering through the family route and 32 per cent through the work route.
The government faces important policy choices on international students. The difference they make to the education sector and the economy is very significant, while the difference they make to long term net migration is relatively small. But the government’s target is distorting these choices and giving ministers a perverse incentive to cut international student numbers in the short-term rather than control long-term net migration.
Something that concerned Tory backbencher, Jo Johnson, highlights in today’s FT. One way of removing these false choices would be to take a more rational approach to the way international student migrants are counted.
At present, all migrants who stay in the UK for more than a year show up in net migration statistics, regardless of whether or not they then leave a few years later. By changing the way in which student migration is measured so only those international students who stay on to work (or marry UK residents) are included, ministers would have a truer picture of migration flows to and from the UK.
They would also be less tempted to try and ‘game’ their own migration targets by making large reductions in international student numbers in 2013 and 2014 through restrictive visa policies in order to meet their 2015 target.
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Comparisons show there is nothing to prevent the government from adopting a new approach to measuring international student migration. Other countries – notably Australia, Canada and the US – treat international students as temporary or ‘non-immigrant’ admissions in their migration figures.
These are also the countries that are our main competitors in the global market for talented international students, who make a hugely important economic and social contribution to their host countries. This approach would have little effect on the government’s ability to control net migration over the medium to long term, or its ability to target bogus students or colleges.
Sticking with the current system and continuing to ‘bear down’ on genuine student numbers carries far greater risks.