The British public do not see international students studying in the UK as “immigrants”, and do not want the number coming here reduced, even if this would make it harder to reduce overall immigration numbers, according to new research by Universities UK and British Future, writes Joe Cryer.
The report, International students and the UK immigration debate, argues that the government should instead remove international students from the net migration targets and support universities to attract more international students to study here.
The new research poses a challenge to the government as it seeks to keep its promise to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”. International students are the largest group of migrants from outside the EU counted in the government’s net migration figures, representing around a third of all people coming into Britain. Yet only a fifth (22%) of people think that international students count as “immigrants” at all, and commonly react with “surprise and even bafflement” when they are told that they are included in immigration targets.
Sixty per cent of people say that international students are also beneficial to the areas in which they live and study, bringing money to the local economy. This figure rises to 66% of people living in university towns.
Most people (59%) are opposed to any efforts to reduce the number of international students in the UK, rising to two-thirds (66%) of Conservative voters.
In the foreword to the report, Mark Field MP, Chairman of Conservatives for Managed Migration, argues that the public already makes distinctions between different types of immigration, and that their views on international students show “a pragmatic and nuanced view about the kinds of migration that best reflect our nation’s interests and values.”
Findings from the report also suggest that the majority of the public (75%) think international students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain for some period of time after they graduate, bringing their skills to British companies rather than our international competitors. Just 13% say they should not be allowed to stay.
The new research shows that trying to get net migration down by targeting international student numbers would be unpopular and would fail to address the public’s anxieties about immigration. Instead it would cost Britain the widely-recognised benefits that those students bring, both to local economies and to our universities.
With such wide-ranging support for removing international students from any net migration targets, questions have also been raised about the image the UK is presenting to the rest of the world in terms of attracting the best and brightest students. Professor Sir Christopher Snowden of Universities UK argues that “if the UK wants to fulfil its potential in this growth area, it must present a welcoming climate for genuine international students and ensure that visa and immigration rules are proportionate and communicated properly.”
The full report can be found here.