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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

International students and net migration in the UK

This report recommends that international students should be excluded from overall net migration figures, as moves to limit incoming student numbers for the sake of long-term migration figures put a valuable export market - higher education - at risk. A survey of the top 10 countries for international students suggests there is no international rule or standard preventing the UK from counting students in this way.

Instead, the report recommends that students are counted in net migration figures only at the point they elect to stay on in the UK after study, for example to work or marry, and so switch into another migration category.

Most students leave the UK after studying, but most students stay for a few years - this means that they count as immigrants long before they count as emigrants. For a government committed to reducing net migration 'to the tens of thousands', this provides an incentive to reduce incoming student numbers and by doing so to 'bank' an apparent net migration saving, despite the fact that most students make no contribution to long-term net migration.

The report estimates that the government's stated policy of 'bearing down' on student migration could cost the UK £2-3 billion per year in economic contribution from the reduction of 50,000 international students per year. Changing the counting method to exclude students from net migration would remove the incentive to 'bear down' and so avoid this substantial loss. Moreover, an alternative 'pro-growth' policy to attract an additional 50,000 students could double this effect, adding to the economic might of the UK's education industry.