New figures reveal overseas student data has been inaccurate

by Ray Clancy on August 30, 2017

An intense debate about the role of foreign students in the UK has been going on for some time and what their status will be regarding visa requirements after Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she is determined to keep students within her tens of thousands net migration target, but there are growing calls for student immigration to be separate from general immigration.


Concerns have been raised that it is too easy for foreign students to stay in the UK once their period of education has ended and there is also a debate about the value of the fees that they pay to universities.

However, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has admitted that it has underestimated the value of tuition fees to universities and colleges from overseas students by up to £2.1 billion a year.

It also said that the number of students overstaying illegally after the end of their studies has been over estimated and that 97% do leave when their visas have run out.

This confusion is one reason behind the decision to order a review of student immigration and visas. The document from the Advisory Migration Committee is not expected to be published until next year.

The real picture has emerged as officials now have access to data which records actual leaving figures from ports and airports rather than the International Passenger Survey (IPS) which was based on what people said they were doing.

For example, when non-European Union former students were departing the UK in 2015 and 2016 some 28% told the IPS they were unsure how long they would be out of the UK or that they intended to return within 12 months.

Now exit checks data suggest the proportion of non-EU students who actually returned is much lower at around 6%, meaning there may have been an underestimate of long term emigration.

The new figures for 2016 show that only 4,600 international students overstayed their visas, overturning previous estimates that the number was closer to 100,000.

Higher education organisations are hoping that the review will clear up any confusion regarding the number of overseas students, how many stay after study and how much they contribute to the economy. It is the first time that research of this kind has been commissioned.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said that the detailed examination of the net benefits of international students is good news for the sector. ‘This is an opportunity to build on the considerable evidence that shows that international students have a very positive impact on the UK economy and local communities,’ he added.

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