There has been increasing pressure in recent months for students to be removed from the annual net migration statistics. Cabinet ministers including Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox have all called for students to be taken out of the migration statistics. In April 2017, the Education Select Committee issued a report in which it called for overseas students to be recorded "under a separate classification and not be counted against the overall limit."
The annual net migration statistics are politically sensitive. They provide the yardstick by which the Conservative Party's pledge (made in its 2010, 2015 and 2017 manifestos) to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands is measured. As long as students are included in those figures there is an incentive for the Government, with the objective of reducing the overall net migration figures, to introduce measures to discourage foreigners from coming to study here. The issue assumes even greater importance in the context of Brexit. Currently there are no obstacles to EEA nationals coming to the UK to study. We do not yet know what the UK's policy towards students from the EU will be after Brexit. However, there is a real possibility that ultimately they will be subject to the same, more restrictive immigration regime as applies to non-EU students, and there are concerns that these requirements, coupled with the potential for higher fees as international students, will lead to a collapse in student numbers from the EU.
Annual net migration was 248,000 according to the ONS's latest quarterly report (August 2017). 139,000 inward migrants (out of a total of 588,000) were recorded as coming to the UK for long-term immigration to study. Removal of students from the annual net migration figures could therefore have a significant impact upon the total, although it is argued by some that inclusion of students in the figures simply balances out because once they leave they are then included in the exit figures.
However, until recently, the UK did not carry out exit checks on those leaving the country. For this reason, the statistics on the number of students who leave at the end of their studies are currently based upon the International Passenger Survey questionnaire, essentially an estimate. ONS statistics have for years repeatedly estimated that around 100,000 students overstayed their visa. But in August, the ONS revealed that information obtained from Exit Checks indicated that 95% of students either left the UK at the end of their course or extended their student visa or lawfully switched into another immigration category. The vast majority therefore do not overstay. This throws the entire basis upon which immigration policy towards students has been made into question.
On 24 August, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to assess the impact of international students in the UK, including consideration of both EU and non-EU students at all levels of education. She said that the MAC report "should give the Government an improved evidence base for any future decisions whilst the ONS goes through the process of reviewing the contribution it thinks students are making to net migration".
It may be that the MAC Report, when published in September 2018, will strengthen the case for removing students from the annual net migration figures, especially in light of the Exit Checks evidence that most do leave the UK at the end of their studies. This in turn may lead to a reversal of the trend in recent years to impose ever-greater restrictions on student migrants.
If you would like to discuss a similar initiative, please contact Lee Jackson or your usual contact at the firm on 020 3375 7000. Further information can also be found on the Higher Education page on our website.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, November 2017