Political football if foreign students are kicked out of UK universities

higher education, migration

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  15 Jun 2012
Source:  IPPR

This last month has not been a happy one for the government’s net migration target. The most recent figures showed net migration still at an all-time-high. New research by IPPR, followed by an open letter to the Prime Minister by scores of university heads, have prompted widespread questions about the wisdom of including international students in the figures – given that most students are not really “long term immigrants” at all, and that a short-term political obsession with cutting their numbers is likely to do long-term damage to our education sector and to the UK economy.

The anti-immigration pressure group Migrationwatch bear some responsibility for influencing the Conservatives to choose net migration for their key election pledge, through their success in the media and the activities of their parliamentary wing Balanced Migration. Their narrative relied heavily on the idea of Britain as a "crowded island", a clever tactic for reassuring moderates that there was nothing racist about opposing immigration – it was simply a question of numbers. If crowding is the issue, then overall net migration is indeed a logical target. But because it includes the movements of British citizens, EU citizens, and emigration as well as immigration, it is also far harder to control, and so far has given the Conservatives nothing but trouble. So it is not surprising that this week MigrationWatch have responded to the recent shift in the debate with a strident restatement of their faith in the net migration target, and their view that students must remain included in it.

Migrationwatch’s main argument is that excluding students from the net migration figures “would destroy the credibility of the government’s immigration pledge”. In crude political terms, they may be right: if ministers take students out of the target, those whose main concern is scoring points will relish the opportunity to charge them with “fiddling the figures”. But on closer inspection, it is including students which, in the short term, truly represents “fiddling the figures”. When student immigration is rising, there is a “lag effect” on net migration, as student emigration (which is spread over several years) catches up with immigration. This is true to an extent of all immigration categories, but the larger the proportion who eventually emigrate, the bigger this lag effect is. Because of this “lag effect”, including students in the net migration figures will make it look like the government has made much more progress in hitting its target in 2013 and 2014 than in fact it has, as IPPR’s analysis shows. The crucial point is that including or excluding students makes relatively little difference to long-run net migration – which ministers and MigrationWatch claim is their real concern – but makes a big difference to how the government’s efforts look in short-run political terms.

Including students, and therefore being incentivised to continue reducing numbers, also makes a big difference to our education sector and the UK economy – a difference which IPPR, UniversitiesUK, and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills all estimate runs into many billions of pounds. MigrationWatch’s airy dismissal of this lost economic contribution suggests a regrettable narrowmindedness at a time when returning to growth is clearly a national priority.

Migrationwatch also urge that the data on which the net migration figures are based be strengthened, and that more action be taken against bogus students and colleges – both points on which IPPR agrees (and which featured in our report). But the idea that we should persist with a policy based on poor data until that data is improved, despite the risk to our education sector and economy, is quixotic; and cutting down on bogus students and colleges and cutting down on numbers are fundamentally different objectives. This is why IPPR has consistently argued that ministers should remove international students from the “numbers game” of the net migration target. MigrationWatch have offered no new arguments this week to challenge that view.

MigrationWatch did not offer readers of their report a link to IPPR’s research; IPPR is happy to point readers to both our report and MigrationWatch’s report so that they can make up their own minds.