Government estimates of how many foreign students stay in the UK after finishing their studies are based on data that is “potentially misleading”, the statistics watchdog has warned.
Official figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest around 100,000 international students stay in the UK illegally once they have finished studying – a statistic quoted by the Prime Minister to argue the case for introducing student visa restrictions.
Experts undertaking a regulatory review of the ONS figures have expressed concerns that the data cited is unreliable, however, as student emigration numbers are based on surveys that do not provide an accurate overall picture of migration patterns.
The revelation comes amid increasing pressure placed on the British Government to remove foreign students from immigration figures and abandon plans to tighten restrictions on student visas.
The Independent and the Open Britain group, which urges a soft Brexit, are running a Drop the Target campaign calling for the net migration goal of fewer than 100,000 to be abandoned.
Despite its omission in the Queen’s Speech, Downing Street said it remained “absolutely committed” to the target, and the Prime Minister has showed no sign of wavering on the inclusion of students within that figure.
However, a review by the Office for Statistics Regulation published on Thursday found the ONS data “may not provide a complete and coherent picture of former-student emigration” and is “not of sufficiently high quality to meet the needs of users”.
Summarising the findings, the body's director general, Ed Humpherson, said: “I am concerned that the former-student emigration estimate does not bear the weight that is put on it in public debate.
“This estimate should add clarity on the pattern of student migration in the UK.
“Instead, it creates doubts by not providing a complete and coherent picture of former-student emigration, as these figures alone do not provide information on all the different outcomes for international students.”
New emigration data collected by the Home Office last year suggested the true number of students overstaying their academic visas was closer to around 1 per cent of the official estimate of 100,000 – equating to 1,500 per year.
Writing for The Independent on Thursday, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said “wrongly inflated” migration numbers had fuelled immigration “panic” to the detriment of much-needed international students.
“The case of overseas students illustrates the absurdity of the [net migration] target and the malign consequences of it,” he said.
“The vast majority of students return home – apart from a few who have special skills and are recruited for post-study work, and some others who illegally overstay.
“The problem is that we don’t know how many overstay because the Border Agency did not, until recently, count people out as it counts people in.
“It operates on guesswork and on the basis of an airport survey which is laughably inaccurate and wildly exaggerates the numbers of over-stayers.”
Courts have ruled that 48,000 overseas students have wrongly been sent home without completing their courses, he added, “in some cases sacrificing a lifetime of earnings and borrowings by a poor family”.
“One of Britain’s most successful export industries – higher education – was, and is, being sacrificed by Theresa May’s Home Office in pursuit of the immigration target.”
Summarising its review, the Office for Statistics Regulation said the emigration estimate for students “should represent the best available estimate of student emigration and should clarity on the student migration gap”.
Instead, it “creates doubt about the pattern of student migration and generates a narrative that is potentially misleading for a topic of major public interest and policy sensitivity”.
James Pitman, head of Destination for Education, which prepares international students for study in the UK, said: “Immigration policy is being based on flawed data which does not accurately represent the nature of international students, who are not long-term migrants and contribute to both the UK’s economy and soft power.
“Higher Education is the second biggest contributor to the UK’s balance of payments, with £26bn of gross output for the UK economy.
"In order to achieve the Government’s ambition for a truly Global Britain, we need to encourage international students to come to the UK so that our local and national economies can continue to benefit and improving the data we have on international students is the first step in the right direction.”
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