Collateral damage: why international student numbers are falling

Daniel Stevens

This week, two telling statistics highlighted the state of the immigration debate in the UK and its impact on international students.

First, “net migration” was reported by the ONS as rising from 167,000 in June 2012 to 182,000 in June this year. This is despite the fact that overall immigration to the UK has actually fallen. Emigration to the UK however, has fallen as well cancelling the former’s impact.

Second, a YouGov poll found that 68% of the public wanted to see an increase in the number of students coming to study in the UK. The same poll found that only 7% believe that immigration has dropped significantly with 73% thinking immigration is “higher than a few years ago.”

There is a great and growing divide between the rhetoric on immigration, the public’s perception and the facts. The result has been an intensely politicised debate which has dragged all parties into an ever-growing and increasingly nasty immigration “arms race.”

Within this race, international students and the UK’s international education sector have been used as collateral damage. In June 2010, the number of student visas issues stood at 320,183. The figure as of September 2013 is 216,895- a decline of 32%. This was the result of numerous extraneous and draconian coalition policies, which increased requirements on students who wanted to come to the UK, curtailed the rights international students had to work experience, reduced possible working rights and introduced the need for credibility interviews. (Let’s not forget the complete debacle over London Metropolitan University.)

This was all done in the name of clamping down on “abuse” but the reality is the motivations are much more cynical.  Last year, the IPPR clearly highlighted the complete paradox of including international students in net migration figures which has meant that the only way the Government can meet its net migration target is through large reductions in the number of legitimate international students. The Government has vehemently refused to acknowledge this paradox and instead continues to vilify international students in defence of newer more draconian proposals.

As a result, it is no surprise that numbers of international students coming to the UK are down and that 52% of international students in the UK already think that the Government’s immigration cap make them feel less welcome. One has to wonder what the public reaction would be if the automobile industry had experienced the same decline due to Government policy and 52% of directors in the automobile industry felt the Government’s trade policies were hostile to growth.

Yesterday, at the same time as the ONS Statistics launch- the IPPR launched its independent report entitled “Britain wants you! Why the UK should commit to increasing international student numbers.” It found what we all know in the education sector- the overwhelming majority of students are genuine and not out to cheat the system. More worryingly it revealed that 9 out of 10 Indian students were put off coming to the UK because of work restrictions. It recommended providing more flexible work experience arrangements for international students, reintroducing the ability to seek work experience after studies, removing international students from net migration targets and having a clearer Government commitment to growing the number of international students studying in the UK.

However, we are moving far away from the IPPR’s proposals. The latest Government attempt to silently meet its target through reductions in international student numbers comes from the Immigration Bill. Branded as a move to target illegal migration- it once again ironically will have the biggest impact on international students. 75% of those affected by the bill’s proposals are non-EEA students.

The proposals include charging international students’ access to the NHS, having landlords be forced to act as the UK border controls and removing the right of appeal for international students. NUS have outlined clearly our opposition to the immigration bill. We believe international students already contribute an estimated £7.9 billion to the UK economy. Research from the University of Sheffield has proven that even with costs to public services such as the NHS is taken into account, international students already make a net contribution of over £120 million year to the city of Sheffield alone. And when letting agents have already proven to be sometimes racist, can we really trust them to be the UK border patrols as well?

But the truth is, blame has to go around all political parties. Labour have reacted that the proposals do not go far enough. And within all three political parties, no one is standing up for international students. Once again forgotten and used as the collateral damage of the UK’s immigration debate.

Students’ Unions and international students across the country have come together to campaign against these changes. Over 4,800 have signed a petition against the unfair NHS charges for international students and over 600 have emailed their MPs directly.

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