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New data indicates that Britain does not have a chronic problem with foreign students abusing the immigration system by staying illegally in the country following the expiration of their UK visas. Previous government estimates showed huge discrepancies between the arrival and departure of foreign students entering the UK to study.
International students usually enter the UK on a Tier 4 student visa, while workers often opt for the Tier 2 visa, which allows skilled workers to work for a UK employer with a tier 2 sponsorship licence, and eventually gain legal permanent residence.
These discrepancies have often been attributed to students remaining in the UK unlawfully upon completion of their course. However, the first ever data based on proper exit checks – compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – suggests that this claim might not be true.
The new statistics come amid a Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) investigation – commissioned by Home Secretary, Amber Rudd – into the impact of international students on Britain’s economy and society.
MAC review on UK visa students
The MAC review will assess the effect that non-EU and EU students have on the UK labour market while present in the country. Historic data documenting international students – as with all previous net UK migration estimates – is based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS).
However, officials can now access ‘exit check’ data, which provides a more accurate overview of a person’s movements rather than having to rely on what people leaving the UK tell IPS interviewers at ports and airport terminals about their intentions.
According to responses logged during IPS interviews between 2015 and 2016, 28 percent of non-EU former students said they were ‘unsure how long they would be out of the UK or that they intended to return within 12 months.’
Data compiled as a result of exit checks indicates that the proportion of non-EU students who actually returned to the UK is significantly lower at approximately 6 percent. This suggests that long-term emigration has been underestimated.
Non-EU students overstaying UK visas not a major issue
In its report, which focused on 1.3 million UK visas granted to non-European Economic Area nationals, which expired in 2016/17, without an extension to stay longer, the ONS said: “There is no evidence to support the claim that there is a major issue with non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay.”
Out of 181,024 expired student UK visas, 176,407 (97.4 percent) exited the UK in-time. Meanwhile, similar figures were recorded for non-EU nationals in the UK on Tier 2 visas (95.4 percent) and visitor visas (96.7 percent). Overall, 96.3 percent of UK visa holders departed the country prior to their entitlement to stay running out.
However, the ONS report did concede that the percentage unaccounted for could not be pinpointed exactly due to gaps in the data. ‘Some may have left on time, others could have left late, while some might have overstayed,’ the report said.
International student overstayer numbers ‘a fantasy’
Diane Abbot, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, took the opportunity to slam the government’s slanderous view of international students. She said: “The exit check data shows that the Prime Minister’s long-running campaign to malign international students is based on fantasy, with no evidence of a major issue with students overstaying.”
On a more positive note, she said that some government officials had ‘at last started to recognise the valuable contribution that international students make to Britain and the MAC review will undoubtedly come to this conclusion.’
However, in a dig at the Conservative government’s attempts to reduce net migration figures, Abbot said: “Labour will offer fair rules and reasonable management of migration; prioritising jobs, growth and prosperity, not bogus net migration targets.”
UK Visa abuse curbs working
In response to Abott’s comments, the Home Office said: “The exit check report shows that efforts to shut down bogus colleges and curb visa abuses are working. There is no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the UK.”
“The exit checks report shows that the measures the government has introduced to crack down on abuse of student routes are working and we now have high levels of compliance. At the same time we’ve maintained a highly competitive offer for those talented international students who want to learn at our top institutions, and the number of sponsored applications to study at our universities have continued to rise,” the Home Office added.
Remove international students from net migration figures
The newly published data has prompted fresh calls for Theresa May to axe international students from her overall net migration target of 100,000.
A statement released by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a left-wing think-tank, said: “If the Home Office insists on relying on this data to impose a restrictive policy on international students, then it is in all likelihood spending valuable government time and resources on a problem that simply does not exist.”
According to the IPPR, given the irrefutable evidence of the exit checks data, the government should be urgently exploring ways to remove international students from the migration target altogether.
Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has actively fought against curbs on non-EU students during his stint as business secretary as part of the former coalition government. He said: “I’ve argued repeatedly with Theresa May that overseas students bring huge economic benefits to universities and the broader economy.”
Cable argues that recording international student numbers as part of official UK immigration statistics ‘makes no sense.’
MAC review due in September 2018
It’s understood that the review into the impact of international students on the British economy and society will involve an in-depth analysis of tuition fees and the spending habits of foreign students across the national, regional and local economies.
Their impact on recruitment and how this affects the quality of education given to UK students will also come under scrutiny. The MAC’s final report is due to be submitted in September 2018.
Chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, said: “We welcome the government’s commitment to a detailed examination of the net benefits of international students. This is an opportunity to build on the considerable evidence that shows that international students have a very positive impact on the UK economy and local communities.”
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