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Are foreign students good or bad for Britain?

Mark Easton | 16:09 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

Immigration Minister Damian Green, faced with the tricky challenge of halving the level of UK net immigration, has - as predicted on this blog - turned his attention to the hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals who come to Britain on student visas.

Damian Green

"Half do not fit with everyone's image of the hard-working student in higher education," he told journalists ahead of a speech this evening. "People think that they are the very brightest and the best, but we have discovered that only half are studying degree-level courses. Half are coming to study sub-degree courses."

What conclusion are we to draw from this? The implication appears to be that "sub-degree courses" are somehow a bit dodgy. The Daily Telegraph interpreted his comments to suggest that he was considering "limiting visas to those studying degree courses" rather than "lesser qualifications such as A-levels and even GCSEs".

I suspect this idea would not go down very well at the prime minister's alma mater, Eton College, or many of the other independent schools which currently educate 23,000 overseas students in those "lesser qualifications".

According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), two-thirds of those foreign pupils come from outside the EU, notably Hong Kong and China.

Graph showing non-British pupils with parents living overseas

The British Council, which is tasked with trying to attract foreign income into UK education, estimated earlier this year that international students contributed "nearly £315 million" to the independent schools sector, which would suggest that pupils requiring visas bring more than £200 million into the sector.

British Council figures on the economic impact of international students in UK

In a statement given to me this afternoon by the British Council, chief executive Martin Davidson says "our universities and colleges mustn't lose ground to international competitors".
"In addition to the students who come here for university courses, others are attracted to the excellent English language and further education opportunities in public and private institutions, many doing so for short periods of time. Meeting the demand from overseas students brings incalculable benefit to the UK."

(Incidentally, the table the council published in their report Making it Happen [2.04MB PDF] also provides the source for the £8bn figure for the economic benefit from international students which some correspondents questioned in my previous post on this subject.)

Independent schools were expressing concern when the previous government tightened student visa controls a year ago. Oundle School near Peterborough described the impact of those new rules as "a crisis verging on a national disaster" and this afternoon the undermaster at the school, Roger Page, told me that "any system that made it more difficult for outstanding students to study in this country would be complete madness".

Mr Green realises that if he is to have any chance of keeping the promise to reduce net immigration to less than 100,000 a year he must do something more than cap the number of skilled and highly-skilled workers coming to Britain from outside the EU. Even that bit of the equation, he admits, has proved a hard sell within the coalition.

"We've announced a limit, that's been controversial. What is transparently clear from this evidence is that the limit itself isn't enough to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands." No wonder he is turning his attention to overseas students whose increasing numbers are boosting the net migration figure.

Today the Home Office published a report entitled The Migrant's Journey which had followed the progress of the 186,000 students granted visas in 2004. The press release to go with it points out without further explanation that "more than a fifth of those were still in the UK five years later".

Again, what conclusion are we to draw from the research suggesting 21% of people granted student visas in 2004 were still in the country in 2009? The implication seems to be that these migrants should have gone home. Some will no doubt jump to the conclusion from today's news coverage of this story that one in five foreign students are overstaying their welcome. The document from which the figures are drawn, however, says no such thing.

Home Office findings

Far from suggesting it had uncovered evidence of dodgy foreign students joining an army of illegal immigrants, the report says that the figures are exactly what you would expect from law-abiding people coming and paying to study in the UK.

Indeed, the data would seem to be reassuring evidence that the student visa system is not being used as a back-door into Britain. Of the 186,000 who came to study, the report says, "very few of these students (3%) had reached settlement after five years in the UK". No evidence is produced to suggest that large numbers are hiding from the authorities.

"The minister believes these levels are unsustainable, and will say that this will be looked at as a priority" the Home Office said today. What, precisely, is "unsustainable" about this situation?

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