UK to publish separate student immigration data

The debate over immigrant students is heating up in Britain, following the publication of the latest immigration figures that show a fall in the number of student visas. Overseas students from India, China and other countries from outside the European Union has become a subject of debate because they are included in overall immigration figures.

According to the latest figures, net immigration to Britain has fallen from 242,000 in 2010-2011 to 183,000 in 2011-2012. This is a long way off from the desired “tens of thousands” but the fall is being projected by the government as evidence that tighter controls are working. In the year to September 2012, there were 210,921 visas issued for the purpose of study (excluding student visitors), a fall of 26% compared with the previous 12 months.

These figures, say critics led by British universities, are misleading. They argue that students should not be counted as immigrants because most of them go back to their home countries. By counting them, critics argue, the government risks confusing the public on numbers. The coalition government wants to bring down net immigration to the tens of thousands and targeting students is an easy option, even though it may be economically harmful to Britain.

Students are counted as immigrants when they stay in Britain for more than a year. The fall of 26%, say critics, is bad news for Britain because it shows that genuine students, who bring in billions of pounds in revenue, may be applying to other countries, such as the US, Australia and Canada. The government, however, claims that it has been successful in rooting out ‘bogus students’ – i.e. people who apply for student visas because they want to migrate to Britain.

This is why separate figures are needed for those students who stay on (even though most of them will leave). Dr Vince Cable, the minister incharge of business and enterprise and a respected senior cabinet member of the Liberal Democrats, admits that there are differences in the coalition government between his party and the Conservatives.

“There is no quantitative target. Within the coalition, one party believes in having a quantitative target, the other doesn’t. But both parties agree on (the need for) overall careful management of people coming from outside the Europe Union,” Cable told me recently.

Both Cable and universities minister David Willetts say they have worked closely on this issue and that they now have “policy stability.” They say Britain must include students as part of immigration numbers because of United Nations and OECD conventions.

Cable said Britain will publish separate students numbers in order to clear up the debate. Currently, students who come over more than a year are counted as immigrants, said Cable. “We are separately publishing data on students. We understand they are not immigrants. They are not coming here to live. The overwhelming, vast majority want to come here, study and then to go back.

“But international conventions require us to publish their numbers alongside those who are coming here to settle, which causes misunderstandings domestically. We are trying to separate it out.” Willetts agreed, saying disaggregated figures were important “to inform domestic public debate about the issue.”

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