Opinion

A bogey called immigration

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 01, 2017

Genuine status Studiously ignored

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The number of international students overstaying illegally in the UK is actually a fraction of what has been suggested to date

In recent years a person questioning the British government’s stance on international students was given one of two typical responses. One track focused on reminding them of the fact that the drop in numbers in some groups (including Indian students) was largely the result of the government crackdown on fake colleges that brought students over to Britain under the pretext of study merely to enable them to come to the UK. The second argument focused on highlighting the supposedly sizeable number of overstaying students.

During a heated debate, a senior British official recently suggested that India had little reason to be aggrieved over Britain’s visa regime for students (nor any right to expect change) given the large number of Indians who overstayed their visas. “We welcome students coming to study but the fact is, too many of them are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out…I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students, yes: overstayers, no. And universities must make this happen,” Prime Minister Theresa May insisted two years ago, while still Home Secretary, justifying why students needed to be included in Britain’s immigration statistics — and therefore, one of the groups whose numbers Britain would be aiming to bring down as part of government targets to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.

Misleading argument

While Britain does not have a limit on the number of international students able to come and study in the country, it has toughened the regime in other ways — most notably by limiting the ability of students to work in Britain after their degree. Students have a maximum of four months after their degree to find a job, which has proved a major disincentive for many hoping to work in Britain even temporarily after their degree. Their wish to do so cannot be seen as anything other than reasonable, given the premium accorded to experience working in Britain, and the substantial financial investment put into studying in the country.

Yet the suggestion that students are keen to abuse the system has been implicit in much of the rhetoric on the issue. Last October, in a speech pledging to toughen the regime, current Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she would be looking at the possibility of a two-tier system with tougher rules for those on “lower quality courses…This isn’t about pulling up the drawbridge. Its about making sure students that come here, come to study”, she said at the time.

The raison d’etre for this tough stance came crashing down last week as it emerged that the number of international students overstaying their visa illegally was a fraction of what the government had been suggesting to date. Home Office data relying on a new system of exit checks at Britain’s borders that began in 2015 found that a mere 4,600 had overstayed last year, in contrast to the roughly 100,000 that had been suggested by the International Passenger Survey (IPS) conducted at border crossings that the government had been relying on to date. A separate study by the official statistician, the Office for National Statistics, considered things by nationality too, finding that Indian students were among the nationals most likely to leave before their visa expired, with many others staying on because they had managed to extend their visa for work or other reasons.

Firm stance

While the release of the figures created a media storm it came as little surprise to those campaigning for international students, who have long been wary of the IPS and the way simple survey figures were being used to justify and draw up tough immigration policies. Many had been pushing for the exit check data to be published and for the system of exit checks to be developed further to enable Britain to have a far more rigorous system for analysing its migration figures than it had to date. In October last year, the government dismissed a report in The Times that it was sitting on data that showed fewer than 1 per cent of foreign students were overstaying their visas, while in July the statistics regulator warned the government and the ONS that the IPS data the government had been relying on had to be seen as “experimental” data.

However, the government has to date remained adamant about its commitment to the tough regime for students, passing up an opportunity just before Parliament broke up before the June general election to take students out of the net migration figures after members of the House of Lords introduced an amendment to legislation on higher education. The government’s unwavering stance on this issue has contrasted with its penchant for u-turns — during the election campaign the government was derided by Labour for being “weak and wobbly” after reversing its stance on a number of major policy issues — and is seen as a sign of the prime minister’s own obsession with a tough immigration regime. She has faced strong pressure even from within her party for change: a number of cabinet ministers have spoken on or off the record about their eagerness to see policy changed in this area, with little success to date.

Wait and watch

Even before the latest revelations the stubbornness appeared somewhat irrational, given Britain’s post-Brexit ambitions to forge trade deals across the world. India has indicated in the past that taking students off the immigration figures would be a significant concession and gesture of goodwill at a time when Britain has been tightening immigration in other areas.

Whether the figures will prompt change remains to be seen. The government’s response so far has been to commission a report into the economic and social impact of international students on Britain — which is all very well except for the fact that bodies such as Universities UK have already conducted thorough research highlighting the huge economic contribution foreign students make to local economies across the country (£25 billion a year in total), spurring the creation of jobs.

However, even beyond the specific case of international students, the issue raises questions about the very basis of the direction of British policy. As the outcome of last year’s referendum on Brexit made only too clear, concerns about levels of immigration have had a profound impact on British political life. With some of the immigration data that fuelled that debate now in question, a period of national introspection is undoubtedly in order.

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Published on September 01, 2017
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