04 July 2012

Lords clash over international student numbers

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Lords Winston and Hannay have spoken out against the Government's efforts to reduce net migration, saying they are harming the UK's reputation in the international education industry, claims which have been rubbished by Lord Henley.

UK immigration

Lords Winston (top) and Hannay have clashed with Lord Henley (bottom) over the classification of international students in UK immigration figures.

The Government has made significant changes to UK visa and immigration policy which have directly affected the opportunities afforded to international students studying in Britain. These changes include the removal of Post Study Work rights and the introduction of salary thresholds for those wishing to remain after graduation.

The new restrictions are part of a campaign by the coalition Government to bring net migration down from the current levels of approximately 250,000 to the 'tens of thousands' by the next election.

The argument

The changes have attracted significant criticism, mainly from the education industry who claim the changes will cost the British economy upwards of £8 billion. Universities UK, a coalition of chancellors and vice chancellors from the country's universities, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron in May urging him to remove student figures from net migration figures.

Universities UK's insistence was echoed by left-leaning think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, who accused the Government of 'gaming' UK immigration statistics in order to fabricate a loss of student revenue as a reduction in abuse of the immigration system.

The UK is a world leading competitor in the international education market yet all four of its major competitors, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, do not include foreign students in their net migration statistics, a fact pointed out by both Universities UK and the IPPR.

The argument to remove student figures from net migration statistics stems from the idea that as the majority of international students return home after graduating, they cannot be classified as 'long term migrants'.

However, Immigration Minister Damian Green rubbished the idea that foreign citizens who remain in the UK for three years cannot be classified as long term migrants and dismissed the calls for removing students from figures as a 'frankly silly' idea.

"I think there is a wide point, which is to say that someone who comes here for three years as a student is not here and doesn't count is absurd," said Mr Green.

"Nobody is arguing that somebody who comes here to work for two years or 18 months isn't an immigrant, of course they are an immigrant."

The minister rebuffed the IPPR's accusation of gaming the system by claiming that removing student numbers would be a fabrication, saying that simply 'fiddling the figures' would only 'redefine our way out of a problem' rather than address the situation.

The Lords

Lord Hannay of Chiswick also alluded to the UK's education competitors when it came to migration statistics, saying they did not include student figures "in the calculation of migration statistics for public policy purposes".

"Isn't it about the time the Government ceased handicapping the most promising invisible export sector we have?" said Lord Hannay during question time in the House of Lords.

Labour peer Lord Winston, a professor of science and society at Imperial College London, claiming that the changes have resulted in the UK being considered a 'no-go area' for international students.

While Lords Winston and Hannay appear to have sided with the education industry, Lord Henley, a Home Office minister, defended the Government's efforts and rubbished Lord Winston's claims.

"It is not seen as a 'no-go area' because we are seeing an increase in the number of students coming here," said Lord Henley.

"If this was a no-go area there would be a decrease in numbers."

The figures

The latest immigration figures, released at the end of May, would appear to contradict Lord Henley's assertions that more students are entering the UK. Despite an almost negligible drop from 255,000 to just 250,000 overall, student visa applications fell by over 60%.

A study by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) appeared to concur with the official figures, claiming that applications to Masters courses, of which international students typically take up to 90% of, where down by 20% in 2011 compared to the year before.

Sharon Bamford, AMBA chief executive, claimed the contraction was due in large part to a 'huge amount' of negative press in India.

The effect

While these figures seemingly offer some weight to the Government's detractors' claims that the changes only harm one of the country's most vital and profitable industries without tackling the abuse they are intended for, Mr Green hailed the drop at the time.

"Our tough new rules are now making a real difference with a record 62% drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012," said the minister in May, adding that the drop was proof the changes 'are beginning to bite'.

However, British diplomats in India were tasked last month with reassuring Indian students that study visas were still available to Indian students who wanted to study in India.

And while Mr Green did not retract his statements that removing students from immigration statistics would be 'silly', last week he was forced to plead with international students to still consider the UK:

"Please come, we have got some of the world's best universities."

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