by Rafaela Peteanu
Government statistcs on net UK migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) released in May show a net flow of 153,000 migrants to the UK in 2011–12, a third less than the previous year. Immigration minister Mark Harper said the numbers showed his government had ‘cut out abuse while encouraging the brightest and best migrants who contribute to economic growth’. Prime minister David Cameron made reducing net migration a priority in the 2010 elections.
As the left-of-centre think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently noted, however, the decrease in figures has been caused by a drop in international student numbers. According to IPPR associate director Sarah Mulley, ‘falling student numbers will not help the government meet its target in the medium term’. According to IPPR data, ‘only 18 per cent of student migrants are still in the UK after five years’. A fall of 56,000 in student migration in September 2012 would only bring about a net migration cut of 10,000 in the medium term; the government still has 53,000 to go to reach its target.
The drop in international student numbers is probably linked to falling intake from private sector tertiary or further education (FE) colleges. These took a massive hit in 2010 when the government implemented reforms which included a temporary cap on visas for study in these sectors for applicants from north India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
The effects of these changes can be seen in the most recent statistics. In 2012 only 15 per cent of student visa applications were for the tertiary and FE sector – less than half of what they were in 2010. Private FE colleges had previously been able to offer lower-cost courses than universities, an advantage wiped out when the government ended their students’ right to part-time employment.
Research shows the majority of British people do not even regard students as migrants. According to a 2011 study by the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, 62 per cent of respondents perceived ‘migrants’ as being asylum-seekers, but only 29 per cent imagined migrants as students. The same study revealed that only a minority supported reducing student migration. Presenting a reduced international student intake as a step towards reducing migration would seem to contradict the government’s own aim of encouraging the ‘brightest and best’.