DEBATE: Should foreign students be included in the UK’s net migration target?
YES – Alanna Thomas, executive director of Migration Watch UK
Genuine international students are of huge benefit to the UK and that is why recent reforms have been targeted at bogus students. So while overall study visas have fallen, visa applications for university have risen by 17 per cent.
Calls to remove students from the net migration figures are misguided. Firstly, the term “international migrant” is a UN definition and should not just be ignored when it suits politicians. Moreover, if students arrive, study and go home, even after a period of post-study work, they do not add to net migration in the long term.
However, while there is undoubtedly a need to improve student statistics, the ONS estimates that students have added an average of 70,000 to net migration in the last five years.
Taking students out of net migration does not reduce its level, but the public will rightly think that politicians are fiddling the figures for their own ends. No doubt this will further erode public confidence in the ability of government to control immigration.
NO – Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King's College London
One of the UK’s most long-standing economic problems is our trade deficit – we export far less than we import. What, then, could be more damaging than a government target to reduce exports by one of our most successful industries? Yet, since fees paid by foreign students are (service) exports, that is precisely what including students within the government’s net migration target does. Does anyone believe reducing the number of foreign students attending UK universities will do anything other than damage both our thriving higher education sector and the economy more broadly? And the effects go wider still – as we saw with the Prime Minister’s disastrous trip to India, our unwelcoming attitude to foreign students makes it harder to map out a sensible post-Brexit trade strategy. More broadly, the target distorts government policy across the board – it’s better suited to a centrally planned economy than a liberal, market-oriented one. As Ruth Davidson (almost) says, it’s long past time it was ditched.