It was recently revealed that there are far fewer illegal student migrants than had been thought and that this error led to a needless, costly crackdown on universities.
Many believed, following the regularly stated public position of Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, that students illegally overstaying their visas made up a significant chunk of the total.
Indeed, in her tenure in this role, the current Prime Minister introduced a range of measures — often publicly justified by claims about the number overstaying their visas, often cited at 100,000 — including scrapping a visa that allowed graduates to remain in the country for two years without a job offer.
The fact is that May has consistently acted as if international students are a drain on the British economy and society, and this hostile rhetorical campaign has also been supplemented with legal cases against international students.
Yet on August 24 it emerged that numbers were much lower than thought. New data showed that there were at most 4,617 non-EU students in 2016-17, 2.6 per cent of the total.
Former chancellor George Osborne was among those to use the opportunity of these figures coming to light to criticise May, saying that “false information” had been used to justify her crackdown policy. It was also widely reported in the media that former civil servants said that it was an open secret in Whitehall that the 100,000 figure had no basis in fact but the Home Office refused to drop it.
Universities have seen the news as an opportunity to again make the case for international students, fearing that this important sector is falling behind other countries internationally that do all they can to encourage international students.
While the number of international students has continued to rise at some of our “top” universities, not only have the rest have found recruitment difficult but there are also concerns about whether this will continue at those which have seen numbers increase.
A number of stakeholders are opposed to the current approach to international students, including Universities UK, the teaching unions, the National Union of Students and many local authorities where education is a much-needed growth industry.
Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson both seem to disagree with the Prime Minister and it has been reported previously that they have asked for international students to be removed from the Home Office immigration target.
Furthermore, some in government appear to be waking up to the idea that overseas students make a valuable contribution to our country and have belatedly asked the Migration Advisory Committee to gather evidence.
With divisions opening up in the cabinet on this issue, there is a growing number of voices arguing for the government to remove international students from its target to limit net migration to under 100,000 a year.
Such is the support for international students among MPs that if this was taken to a vote in the Commons, May might just lose.
The government likes to suggest that its post-Brexit settlement will lead to a Britain which is more open to the rest of the world. This is a dubious claim, and nowhere is this clearer than in its policy towards international students.
Yet despite the government’s approach, more and more people are coming to realise that including international students in the total immigration data and then subjecting them to the same irrational net migration target is completely counterproductive. But we also need to go further and look at how we can encourage more foreign students for the future benefit of our economy and society.
International students are not permanent residents and it has been proven that the majority return home after study. Furthermore they contribute billions to the British economy and significantly boost regional jobs and local businesses.
The Business Department estimates that the economic value of the contribution from international students was £14 billion in 2014-15 and that it is set to rise to £26bn by 2025.
This purely factual point seems to be contentious, so it is worth spelling out. Technically, the income from international students resident here counts as exports. International students pay far higher fees to universities and colleges than British-born students. As such, they are providing a subsidy to us all for British higher education spending.
In addition, both the students themselves and any friends and family who visit them also spend money here, boosting our incomes, adding jobs.
The benefits that international students offer are far wider than this narrow, but substantial increase in revenue. They enrich us socially and culturally too. Some of them also ask to stay on, and make an important contribution to our living standards. The NHS is just one sector which would collapse without the contribution of overseas students who come here to study and stay on to work.
International students benefit us all. We should be trying to attract more of them, not driving them away.
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