Most Britons do not view international students as immigrants, new research shows
17 October 2011

Most British people do not view international students as immigrants and would prefer to see the Government reduce other groups of migrants, according to new research.

Two thirds of people did not support reducing the numbers of international students coming to the UK. Those who did want to cut student numbers saw little difference between those studying at English language centres, colleges or universities.

Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK, said that the Government's target of cutting immigration to "the tens of thousands" had created a visa system which was a real deterrent to international students, yet the research showed this did not address the electorate's actual concerns about immigration.

"The findings demonstrate that the majority of the public is relaxed about students coming to the UK. Yet the immigration target is either unachievable or only achievable at the cost of excessive damage to the education system, with large-scale closures of both state and private sector colleges," he said.

He said the core of the problem was the UN definition of migration, which applied to anyone entering and staying in a new country for more than a year. "A student coming to take a degree course in the UK therefore counts as a 'migrant'.  The problem could be solved if the definition were amended to specify that students do not count as migrants."

The Migration Observatory, an independent centre at Oxford University, asked pollsters to question just over a thousand people about their attitudes to immigration early in September.

Its report, Thinking Behind the Numbers: understanding public opinion on immigration in Britain, says: "The public's views on immigration are complex and nuanced in a way that previous polls have failed to capture, and that these views vary substantially depending on which immigrant groups the public is considering."

They wanted to find out who people had in mind when they were answering questions about "immigrants", and whether they thought different groups of immigrants should be treated differently.

When asked to describe immigrants, respondents were most likely to think of asylum seekers (62 per cent) and least likely to think of students (29 per cent). This, says the report, contrasts with the statistics which show that asylum seekers are by far the smallest group of UK entrants, making up just four per cent of the total in 2009 compared with 37 per cent for students.

Respondents also tended to think of immigrants as people who came to the UK permanently rather than temporary visitors. Again, says the report, this differs from the internationally-agreed definition of a long term migrant as someone who visits for more than a year.

The report finds that 69 per cent of the British public supports reduced immigration. However, more than half of those wanted the reduction to be "only" or "mostly" among illegal immigrants.

There was more support for reducing permanent immigration than temporary immigration (57 per cent compared with 47 per cent)  and minority support for reducing the numbers of students coming to the UK.

The questions about students show that around 15 per cent of the respondents would like to see more coming to study in the UK, with about 42 per cent saying that numbers should remain the same. Around a third wanted numbers to be cut.

There was little difference in the perception of different types of student. Respondents did not differentiate particularly between reducing numbers of different types of student: 31 per cent wanted fewer university students, compared with 32 per cent for further education students and 33 per cent for English language students.

There was most support for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers, extended family members and asylum seekers.

"These findings suggest that many members of the public have more complex views about reducing immigration than can be detected by a simple yes or no question. While about a third of the public supports reducing immigration even for the most popular types of migrants (students, high skilled workers), and a somewhat smaller group do not wish to reduce immigration at all, the rest of the population makes finer-grained distinctions that are disguised in simple questions about overall numbers."

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