United Kingdom

Students or migrants?

Print edition : September 29, 2017

International students outside a campus of the London Metropolitan University in London, a 2012 photograph. Government figures say that tens of thousands of them have been illegally overstaying their visas. Photo: CARL COURT/AFP

British Deputy High Commissioner Andrew McAllister interacting with students at an Education UK Exhibition in Hyderabad in February 2017. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Prime Minister Theresa May. In October 2015, while still Home Secretary, she had outlined her commitment to a tough immigration regime. Photo: Jack Taylor/REUTERS

The Theresa May government refuses to change its policy on counting international students as migrants, making it tough for them to stay on legally at the end of their course, despite critics pointing to the government’s dependence on flawed data to show a rise in net migration.

In January this year, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, a former diplomat and cross-bench member of the House of Lords, introduced an amendment to a controversial Bill on higher education seeking to remove international students from Britain’s net migration figures and not treat them as economic migrants in Britain. The government had a duty to “encourage international students to attend higher education establishments covered by the Act”. Lord Hannay said at the time that he hoped the move would help “turn the page” on an “unhappy period in our history where people thought we were a very closed and unwelcoming nation”.

The legislation gathered much support in the House of Lords, and even as late as April hopes were high that the government would let the amendment pass. Then came the general election: in the run-up to the dissolution of Parliament before the election, the government toughened its stance and made it clear that it would not give way, erasing the amendment from the legislation. The developments were seen as a clear example of the commitment of Prime Minister Theresa May, a former Home Secretary, to keeping international students in the net migration figures, and therefore within the remit of the government’s commitment to reducing net migration in Britain to the tens of thousands from the hundreds of thousands.

In October 2015, while still Home Secretary,Theresa May outlined her commitment to a tough immigration regime. “While we must fulfill our moral duty to help people in desperate need, we must also have an immigration system that allows us to control who comes to our country… because when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” she told a Conservative Party conference. Turning to international students, she cited them as one of the reasons why net migration had continued to rise rapidly, insisting that while they were welcome, “too many of them are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out…. If they have a graduate job, that is fine. If not, they must return home. So I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students yes: overstayers no. And the universities must make this happen.”

The thesis that tens of thousands of students were illegally overstaying their visa has been propounded by government figures over and over again, such as last year when Amber Rudd, the new Home Secretary, outlined plans for a consultation on an even tougher immigration regime for international students that could create a “two tier” system that made a student’s ability to stay on and study dependent on the quality of the educational establishment they were attending. “This isn’t about pulling up the drawbridge. It’s about making sure students that come here, come to study,” she insisted.

Passenger Survey

The figures the government was relying on were based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS), which has been in operation since 1961 and collects information from passengers entering and leaving Britain. However, while the data can provide a snapshot of those leaving and entering Britain, its utility as an accurate gauge of immigration figures has been deeply questionable for a while: the data are only gathered during daytime, while many flights with international students (including to India and China) depart outside these hours. These flaws have been repeatedly pointed out to the government, most recently in July when the Office for Statistics Regulation warned that the data based on the IPS survey did not “bear the weight that is put on it in public debate” and had to be collected as “experimental data”. Reports last year suggested that figures from the exit checks that began in 2015 were likely to show a very different picture than that presented by the IPS data.

Last year, The Times reported that the government was sitting on a report that showed that just 1 per cent of international students overstayed their visa. Yet the government continued to maintain its tough stance. While both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats included a commitment to removing students from migration figures in their election manifestos, the Conservatives stood firm. “We will expect students to leave the country at the end of their course unless they meet new, higher requirements that allow them to work in Britain after their studies have concluded,” they promised, in a manifesto that pledged to tighten immigration rules for migrant workers as well as for those wishing to bring non-European Union (E.U.) spouses into Britain.

To those closely monitoring the issue, the government’s stance seemed inexplicable: studies have shown that even in Britain, where immigration has been a highly charged issue, most members of the public do not see students in this vein. A poll commissioned by Universities UK found that only about 26 per cent of the public viewed international students as migrants and that over 60 per cent believed international students had a positive impact on the regions they lived in. A separate study by the body found that international students generated £25.8 billion for the British economy annually, supporting over 200,000 jobs across the country.

The government’s approach also jars with its ambitions of becoming a post-Brexit great trading nation: India has made plain its concerns about the treatment of foreign students and that taking students out of the migration figures would be seen as a gesture of goodwill at a time when its relationship with Britain was in danger of becoming a transactional one, focussed on trade and business relations rather than on the “human bridge” the countries have vaunted. In this context, the significance of the revelations in mid August that the government’s estimates of nearly a 100,000 students overstaying their visa illegally every year were way off the mark—with the figure more like 4,600, according to the data based on exit checks—cannot be underestimated.

“A very large majority of students were identified as having departed before their visa or extension of leave expired or as staying legally by applying for and being granted further leave to remain in the U.K.,” said the report by the Office for National Statistics. Analysis found that Indians were among the students more likely to depart the country before their student visas expired, with a small fraction leaving after their visa had expired.

Theresa May has insisted that they did not get the figures wrong but the estimates merely reflected the success of their strategy. The government has now commissioned a year-long study into the impact of foreign students—a move that has courted criticism for going over ground that has already been covered by others. It comes a month after the Home Office commissioned an investigation into E.U. migration, on which it hoped to base its future immigration policy towards European nations—which drew criticism for not only being too late in the day (it will only report back months before Britain is due to leave the E.U. in March 2019) but also highlighting how much policy to date had been based on flimsy data. Given the huge weight put on limiting immigration by many in the campaign to leave the E.U. in the run-up to last year’s referendum, it is all the more startling.

The government has all along insisted that it has no cap on international students and that it continues to welcome the “brightest and the best”. However, there is little question that policies are far from aligned in the right way to attract students. Under changes brought in 2012, students have just four months after completing their degree to find a job while on their Tier 4 visa (making the switch from a Tier 4 student visa to a Tier 2 visa is much easier than getting a Tier 2 visa is for those coming directly from overseas) and have strict limits on the number of hours they can work during and after their degree. With the costs of employing those on Tier 2 visas rising rapidly for businesses (the Conservative Party manifesto pledged to raise the levy on companies employing migrant workers even further to £2,000 a year), the strategy has killed the attractiveness of a British education, besides making it economically unviable (many have in the past relied on being able to work in Britain to recoup some of the financial investment that has gone into it). But the government’s tough line has also got a grimmer side.

Allegations of fraud

The government had for several years been taking foreign students, workers and others to court with the aim of deporting them, alleging that they used fraudulent means to obtain English-language qualifications to stay in the U.K., after a 2014 BBC investigation found evidence of fraud at one Educational Testing Service (ETS) centre. In the years that followed, thousands of people who had gained their qualification via ETS at different test centres across the U.K. were accused of partaking in fraud, with the government relying on generic witness statements of Home Office officials, without providing any specific proof of fraud. Thousands were deported, while others who were unable to work or study left the country in a state of distress. Many saw the government’s eagerness to push ahead with the programme as part of its efforts to reduce numbers.

The tough regime, of course, is not limited to students: there are strict limits on bringing foreign spouses to the U.K., including high minimum salary thresholds for the British partner, often leaving families divided and children away from their parents. Little regard is given for longstanding links domestically. Earlier this year, a woman who had been married to a Briton for 27 years was deported to Singapore (she was subsequently allowed to return, though not before suffering considerable distress from the separation in the meantime). E.U. citizens, once immune, have begun to face challenges as Britain prepares to exit the E.U.: British papers are full of stories of European citizens who have lived in Britain for many years, or with family in the country, having their applications for permanent residency rejected. In mid August up to a 100 of them mistakenly received letters urging them to leave or face deportation.

While the Prime Minister has been seen as the person standing in the way of changing policy on international students, there is far greater consensus within the party on a tougher regime more widely. The student numbers debacle may well lead to something of a shift in this area, but under this government it is unlikely to lead to the wider introspection it warrants.

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