Student numbers on the agenda again

There are some aspects of British life – like Coronation Street, Eastenders, repeats of Star Trek the Original Series – that seem to go on for ever. Another such aspect, although rather more obscure, is the ongoing fight between political figures as to whether foreign students should be included in the migration statistics or not.

Students, according to some ways of thinking, are not “real” immigrants and, anyway, they are nice and it is not right to include them. But Theresa May (who has now spent an impressive combined seven and a half years as Home Secretary and then Prime Minister) will have none of it. According to the media, she is wary of being seen to “fiddle the figures”.

This debate has recently been sharpened by reports that some of her senior colleagues in Government are planning to gang up on her about this. And now that the Conservatives have lost their parliamentary majority these threats hold more force than previously.

But how many foreign students (or “international students” as they often called) are there in the UK? There are several different varieties of such students: Tier 4 students, EU students and short-term study students. It is only the first category who need to hold Tier 4 visas, and it is on them that the debate is concentrated.

According to UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs), in 2015-2016 there were about 127,000 non-British EU students and about 311,000 non-EU students studying in the UK. This sounds a lot, but of course the debate on migration statistics is mostly about net migration statistics – ie the difference between the numbers coming to the UK and the numbers leaving the UK.

It is not very clear what the statistical impact would be if students were removed from the figures. If it be, despite the large number of students in the UK, that the number of students coming and the number of students leaving is similar (not an impossibility), then the impact of removing them from the figures might be minimal in any case.

But of course it is not this simple because if students are taken out of the figures the statisticians will have to build into their statistical method the fact that some students switch to other visas and do not go home for years, or ever. Presumably it could be the case that such students would only be “counted” when they switch to other visas, otherwise they would apparently emerge out of nowhere.

We suggest that this subject is a bit more complicated than it looks.

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