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by GK Strategy 2nd November, 2016

Are International Students Really Immigrants?

The fire burning in the current debate around immigration should be seen as no new phenomenon. Undeniably the EU referendum campaign and subsequently the 2016 Conservative Party Conference has stoked the embers of the impassioned debate, however, to see this as a new trend that has emerged in the past 6 months misses the wider historical context. The overall narrative created throughout the past two decades, by consecutive governments of both colours, has consistently claimed that immigration levels into the UK are “too high”. But who are the government really referring to when they talk about ‘migrants’?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) divides migration figures up into two categories. Firstly, ’Short-Term International Migration’, in its broadest definition, includes all those entering the UK for 1 to 12 months covering all reasons for migration. This figure is rarely cited in the debate around immigration as it includes those in the UK simply for holiday or leisure purposes. On the other hand, the more commonly used definition used within public debate is ‘Long-Term International Migration’, which covers all those entering the UK for 12 months or more. Laying aside for a moment the inherent problems in accurately recording this figure, we can see the dilemma that is posed to non-domestic students and higher education institutions (HEIs) moving forward.

At the recent Conservative Party Conference, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, both laid down a mantra that they will bring down ‘net migration figures’ by reducing the number of long-term international migrants entering the UK. The implication of this is clear, the number of non-domestic, or ‘international’, students that are enrolled in full-time, multi-year higher education courses must be brought down. But does reduce this overall mean that we have to reduce non-domestic student numbers? Could the student figure not remain constant, or even increase, whilst the overall figure could reach the ‘tens of thousands’ as May promises? The answer is quite simple: no. In 2015, there were 436,585 non-domestic students at UK HEIs and, if we look across the past decade, roughly 200,000 international students every year come to complete higher education courses in the UK. For the Government to reduce net migration figures to tens of thousands they must significantly reduce the number of international students entering the UK.

The Government’s current position is therefore quite precarious. On the one hand, there is little appetite within the higher education sector to reduce the number of international students – as the high fees they pay are essential to the financial sustainability of UK HEIs, while the national, cultural and racial diversity enhances the academic background in which students study. However, on the other hand, international students stand firmly in the way of achieving the Government pledge to reduce the overall number of migrants.
The most commonly prescribed treatment to help the Government extricate themselves from this dilemma is to remove international students from the net migration figures. According to the Home Office’s own statistics, 80% of international students return home after studying and therefore it could be argued that they are more akin to tourists than economic migrants. These students come to the UK for a fixed time, for a single purpose, spend money and then leave afterwards. In addition, with vacations and university reading weeks, many international students will spend more time outside of the UK than in it whilst they are studying. In fact, it has been revealed this week by David Cameron’s Immigration Advisor that Cameron himself was set to remove students from net migration figures following the EU referendum result. This move would have allowed Cameron’s Government to have immediately cut the overall figure by nearly half and helped him achieve his manifesto pledge.

However, the EU referendum didn’t quite go to plan for Cameron and now May is the person in the hot seat. The pressure on her to make the change is still substantial, but her resolve seems to match that of her critics. The language coming out of Downing Street is pretty clear that this change will not be coming, but she is certainly caught in catch-22. If she removes them from the overall figure, she will please the sector and meet her Party’s pledge, but she will also be seen to have fudged the immigration issue and be ‘soft’ on dealing with the public’s concern. Any change and she will be perceived as shifting the rules and definitions of the game to suit her own ends and the hard-right of her own party will not let that lie. Although this specific political headache is not the first time it has occurred for a Prime Minister, the sector will hope they can make it the last over the coming months. Immigration will define May’s premiership, and therefore she is rightly concerned to end up on the right side of the argument.

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