Migration Watch UK’s recent report misses the point by suggesting that the ‘brightest and best’ students in the UK includes only those attending a selection of universities. One of the strengths of the UK’s higher education sector is its diversity.
In fact Migration Watch’s report conflates several issues: the value of international students to our universities and to our society and economy; the need for an open, informed evidence-based debate about immigration and the breadth and depth of UK universities’ offer.
The value of international students
International students make a fundamental contribution to our universities – academically, financially and culturally. They also help UK universities to offer a global environment on their campuses and provide world-class academic services and research activities.
Informed evidence-based public debate
Immigration is a highly complex area and all too often the figures are invoked so freely that they serve only to confuse and obfuscate.
Universities UK has been working hard to convince the government to take students out of the definition of net migration for policy purposes. This is precisely the opposite of ‘fiddling the figures’, because we feel that by making it clear in the official figures that a student is someone who comes here, studies and then leaves, the public debate can be more informed. David Willetts’s recent announcement goes some way to start the ball rolling. The well-respected Migration Observatory at Oxford University’s survey shows that when it comes to categories of immigration, family and work cause the most concern. People understand that students are by and large not the main problem. Everyone, including universities, thinks only legitimate students should be allowed into the UK.
To make a real difference, we need an informed debate, backed up by robust data and rigorous, unbiased research. Migration Watch often descry the lack of immigration data on international students. We agree with them. The data must be improved and this is something Universities UK continues to work on.
So, accepting that the data could and must be improved, in the meantime we must take care with the assumptions we make. For instance, Migration Watch assume in their recent report that the numbers of people arriving under student visas, or counted in general admissions to the UK, can be linked directly to the numbers enrolling at universities. This can be confusing at best, misleading at worst.
While it is correct that there were around 174,000 non-EU students starting their first year of a university course in 2010/11, Home Office data on total admissions counts each arrival in the UK.
The Home Office states quite clearly that the two different sets of ‘data on admissions and on entry clearance cannot be directly compared as they use different counts of the same group of people’.
The Home Office also says that, ‘where an individual enters the country more than once, each arrival is counted’ – so, crucially, the number of enrolments at university is likely to be less than the number of arrivals in the UK. Visa data is more useful as an indicator of intention to visit rather than actual arrivals. It’s also worth noting that some students will already be in the UK when enrolling on a university course, perhaps having already entered the UK to do a foundation or English language course at a college. As they are already here, these students won’t be counted in that year’s figures for admissions to the UK.
Breadth and depth of UK universities
We also need an informed debate about universities themselves. We should not fall into the trap of using simplistic categorisations.
Looking at the enrolments of international students, the latest data from HESA shows that Russell Group institutions (as a collective group) in fact had a higher proportion of non-EU students enrolled than many other institutions in 2010/11.
However, this is not the issue. The ‘brightest and best’ students (whoever they are!) can opt for whichever institution offers the most appropriate place for them to study They may be attracted to a specific course or institution that offers them the particular qualifications or employment opportunities for when they return home. One of the attractions of the UK system is precisely that there are so many different universities offering different qualifications and experience. That is a strength, not a weakness.
We should never forget that the UK’s status as home to a world-class and internationally popular university system is not set in stone – the world is moving on around us and other countries are competitively looking to expand the numbers of international students that they attract. We must ensure that the UK does not deliberately throw its global position away based on misunderstandings of fact. Most of all we must make sure that we have an informed and evidence-based debate about the benefits of international students, that is fully understood by politicians and the public alike, so that whatever position we do adopt in relation to international students it is at least based on fact and evidence.