Student numbers and student visas

There have recently been various confusing articles in the media about foreign students – or “international students”, as the current expression goes – dealing with such issues as how many of them are there in the UK? And do they go home when they have completed their studies? And should they go home when they have completed their studies?

This was the typical type of newspaper headline (from The Times): Thousands of ex-students allowed to stay each year, which has a vaguely alarming quality. Another typical journalistic submission (also from The Times): Ministers are in the dark about the number of overseas students who leave the country at the end of their course after an official review concluded that estimates could be misleading, also vaguely alarming.

Alas, the media has not provided a clear and comprehensive understanding of this subject. But as the ONS (Office for National Statistics), the official State statistician, puts it: “This is a complex area…”.

We do not disagree with this, and so we have kindly decided to provide our readers with a useful grasp of this subject.

First of all, the concept of “international students”, in the context of immigration and student numbers, does not include students from EEA countries. Such migrants are classified as “EEA migrants” and the statistics about them are located somewhere else.

And this subject has for some years been surrounded by a debate as to whether international students should be included in the immigration statistics at all. Some people have argued that students are not permanent migrants: they just come here for a while, finish their studies, and leave. So, the argument goes, like people who come here as visitors, students should not be included in the statistics because they are only here temporarily. However, the Government has consistently rejected this argument and international students are still included in the figures.

To be fair to the Government, they do have some cogent arguments on their side. Visitors will stay in the UK for a few days, a few weeks or a few months. Students can stay in the UK for months or years, depending on what kind of course or courses they are studying. Visitors may stay in hotels whereas students need to find relatively permanent accommodation. So when the Government claims that international students put pressure on private and public services in a similar way to other types of migrant they are not entirely wrong. Perhaps this debate is not the most important part of the subject but, whatever view you take, it is worthwhile to understand the mechanical operating principles.

And international students – or some of them, at any rate – have been accused of overstaying their visas and remaining in the UK illegally. This is true in some cases, but probably in only a very small minority. (And, in any case, other types of migrant, such as visitors, are also sometimes guilty of such offences – it is not only students.)

But the overarching point about this debate – and this is something that the media does not typically explore in any depth – is that the immigration rules have been specifically constructed by the Home Office to enable students to remain in the UK after they have graduated and take employment as skilled workers. Tier 4 Students who have graduated and who have been offered a suitable skilled job by a UK employer/sponsor may be able to acquire a Tier 2 Work Permit visa and potentially, after the requisite visa period, settlement.

Furthermore, the immigration rules allow international students (and indeed migrants in most other immigration categories) to switch to family visas in the UK. If you come to the UK as a student and fall in love you are able to apply for a family visa on the basis of marriage, civil partnership or unmarried partnership. Again, these routes provide the possibility of settlement after the requisite number of years.

Due to the vagaries of the British legal system the immigration rules – not being “proper legislation” – can be changed by the Home Office extremely easily and without notice. We must take it therefore that the immigration rules are exactly as the Home Office wants them to be. Students, and everybody else for that matter, can legitimately take advantage of the rules as their circumstances permit.

It is evidently the case – and as officially declared by the UK Statistics Authority, the State statistics “watchdog” – that the statistics about international students have not been done properly and they are not sufficiently reliable. It rather looks as though the ONS’s statistical methods do not deal accurately enough with students changing their visa status to some other visa status.

But the vaguely-implied idea that international students are generally acting somehow incorrectly does not hold water. Students, like others, are entitled to come to the UK and try and build a future according to the Home Office’s rules. And, to use the sort of vocabulary sometimes used by Government Ministers, international students are “good quality” migrants.