Students should be excluded from the drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, and classed as temporary rather than permanent migrants, recommends a report published today.
A new analysis of student migration by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research says government figures for the number of students remaining in the UK after completing their courses may be an overestimate based on "dubious evidence."
"That means government policy could be focused on driving out tens of thousands of people who may no longer be in the UK. The estimate the government uses is not reliable enough to guide policy. This is deeply worrying. The international education sector is one of the UK's biggest services exports, and one that has significant growth potential. It is also well-placed to help our universities weather the implications of Brexit," says the report, Destination Education: Reforming migration policy on international students to grow education exports.
It adds that this is harming the sector, forcing out migrants with useful skills, and failing to assuage public concerns about immigration because few people consider international students to be migrants.
Sarah Cooper, chief executive of English UK, said she was delighted with the report's analysis. "These recommendations might provide a helpful way forward for the government. Many of us in the sector would like to see students taken out of the net migration figures altogether and this is a very practical and reflective approach to how this might be done, with different targets for different groups and students reclassed as temporary migrants."
The report, supported by several of the biggest pathway course operators - the Cambridge Education Group, Kaplan International, Into University Partnerships and Study Group - says the international education sector presents an "exceptional opportunity for post-Brexit Britain" which provides "a key source of reliable and sustainable revenue generation for the UK, in an otherwise deeply uncertain climate."
It finds "overwhelming evidence" of the benefits international students bring to the education sector and the wider UK economy, but says the government's approach has led to a fall in the number of students coming to the UK and undermined Britain's reputation abroad at a time when competitors are becoming more attractive.
"In the aftermath of Brexit, there is a serious risk that, in a bid to respond to concerns about immigration, this punitive approach towards international students will continue and that the sector therefore suffered as a result of Government policy, rather than fulfilling its potential for growth," it says.
The IPPR has four major recommendations:
The report outlines moves by competitors nations to attract and expand their international student numbers.
It also looks in detail at the figures supporting the Home Office argument that many international students stay on in the UK after completing their studies, concluding "our review... indicates that the evidence for this claim is questionable. While the true number of international student leavers remains uncertain, there are very strong reasons to consider the IPS estimates, which underpin the government's current argument for targeting international student numbers, not sufficiently reliable to guide policy in this area."