With the UK General election in less than two weeks, the gap is narrowing between the two largest parties, the Conservatives led by current prime minister Theresa May and the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. As we concluded in our analysis of the two parties’ manifestos, their massively different views indicate that this will be a uniquely impactful election for Britain’s immigration system. Adding to the mix three parties that are staunchly opposed to ending free movement, which will almost certainly be part and parcel of Brexit, and you have a volatile set of possibilities for people living in the UK from EU countries as well. One of the groups at the center of the controversy over migration is international students, who stand to be targeted by big changes if the Conservative party is victorious. MV takes a deep dive to understand what’s happening.
Students from all over the world vie for the chance to study in the UK, home to some of the world’s top universities. In 2015-2016, over 2 million students studied in undergraduate or post-graduate programs in the UK, and over 231,000 were students from other countries- including some 59,100 from the EU, according to HESA, an agency providing official statistics on the subject of higher education in the UK.
As can be seen, international students make up circa 10% of total higher education students in the UK (this includes both graduate level and post-graduate level students.)
However, this total covers students total in the UK, so it is not an accurate reflection of yearly immigration by people seeking to study in the country. That number, according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) was 136,000 for 2016 – down 36,000 from the prior year.
The numbers of both students generally and incoming students from abroad have remained relatively stable over the last years, but since at least 2010 international students have come under political focus by politicians promising to reduce migration levels. The debate was rekindled this year as British Parliament tackled widespread reforms to British higher education through the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017, partially in response to Brexit.
Brexit, International Students, and the Higher Education and Research Act
Following the referendum result, there was significant concern awakened about what the British exit from the EU would mean for the higher education system. With multiple links with Europe at stake, through students, research grants, joint programs and more, some feared Brexit would make Britain a less desirable destination for students, or leave current international students with huge uncertainty over their status and ability to remain in the UK. British students could also be at risk of losing university spots in the EU, or being unable to access the popular Erasmus program. The multi-partisan House of Commons Committee on Education was tasked with evaluating the situation and making recommendations for the government’s course on higher eduction after Brexit. The resulting report covers a wide range of topics, but is fairly clear in its endorsement for a university sector as open as possible to international students from the EU and beyond.
Around the same time, Parliament mulled the Higher Education and Research Act, a bill meant to tackle widespread challenges to the system and provide stability and quality oversight for the univeristy and research sector. During debate over the bill at the House of Commons, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Joseph Johnson (who is, notably, a Conservative party member) emphasized that the bill would not change course on the topic:
I reiterate that the Government value and welcome international students who come to study in the UK. We recognise that they enhance our educational institutions, both financially and culturally, enrich the experience of domestic students, and become important ambassadors for the UK in later life. It is for those reasons that we have no plan to limit the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the United Kingdom. I need to be very clear that that commitment applies to all institutions. We have no intention of limiting any institution’s ability to recruit genuine international students. We have no plans to cap the number of genuine students who can come to the UK to study, or to limit an institution’s ability to recruit genuine international students based on its TEF rating or on any other basis.
The bill was passed by royal assent in late April with no limits to international students or discussion of including those students in the migration targets. Now, the Conservative manifesto (which we explored in more detail here) has reopened the debate by proposing to include international students in their net migration target after all.
Tories Stand Alone
One of the key promises the Conservative Party makes in its manifesto is to cap migration numbers, down from current levels (they cite circa 270,000 annually) to under 100,000 entrants per year. As part of this reduction, they are the only party to explicitly promise to include international students in their count of “migrants” (page 54).
We will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards. We will expect students to leave the country at the end of their course, unless they meet new, higher requirements that allow them to work in Britain after their studies have concluded. Overseas students will remain in the immigration statistics – in line with international definitions – and within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration.
No matter how you reckon this, it would mean a decrease in visas issued for international students. Whether taking the overall figure or the number of visas issued yearly, it alone is already higher than 100,000: meaning even if they made no decreases to family reunification or work migration, there would be decreases here. Who will make up for these missing places? The Conservatives offer a clue in their section on “Prosperous Towns and Cities Across Britain”:
… we want to see universities make their full contribution to their local community and economy, sponsoring local schools and being creative about how they can open up opportunities for local people, especially those from ordinary working backgrounds.
In addition to reducing student places and toughening requirements for student visas, the Conservatives also commit to increasing the Immigration Health Surcharge for international students to £450 “to cover their use of the NHS.” Studying the manifesto, we haven’t found anything to suggest these changes will not also apply to people from the EU who wish to study in the UK. Indeed, given their stance that migration from the EU must be controlled and reduced, it is logical to conclude that students from the Eurozone are embraced in these policies as well.
It’s interesting that the Conservatives have taken this stance on international students. It goes against the recommendations of the Committee on Education, whose six Conservative party members make up a majority of the 11-member strong committee.
It also contradicts the stance of Conservative Minister Joseph Johnson who we quoted above saying that government has no intention of reducing students or restricting freedom of movement.
It also sets them apart from every other party, including the strongly anti-immigrant UKIP.
Where the other parties stand
In their election manifesto, UKIP pointedly criticizes the “failure” of the Tories on immigration, saying they are “the only party with the political will and the plan to cut immigration.” In their plan, they envision an Australian-style points system with visas for students included, and immigration halved over a five year period to reach a goal of zero net immigration. Students, they say, will be welcomed, but abuse won’t be tolerated. Its unclear what this concretely means for student visa numbers, but UKIP does not seem to spell out cuts to the sector explicitly.
For the other top parties, there is relative unanimity on the subject.
Labour “welcomes international students who benefit and strengthen our education sector, generating more than £25 billion for the British economy and significantly boosting regional jobs and local businesses. They are not permanent residents and we will not include them in immigration numbers, but we will crack down on fake colleges.
Liberal Democrats will “recognising their largely temporary status, remove students from the official migration statistics.”
Greens will “protect freedom of movement, press for remaining within the single market, and safeguard vital rights for people and the environment.”
SNP: “will continue to make the case for the reintroduction of a Post-Study Work Visa scheme for Scotland, to enable international students who come here to study to then stay and contribute to our society and economy after they graduate.”
The public would appear to back a welcoming stance towards international students. In a poll published in April of this year by ComRes for Universities UK, a majority (64%) of British adults consider international students a benefit to the economy, and only 26% consider international students “migrants” when it comes to government immigration policy. (Full study can be downloaded here.) Back in 2014, a poll on the same topic found that 66% of people who vote Conservative are opposed to reducing student numbers.
So why are Tories fixed on reducing International Students?
It is somewhat confusing as to why the Conservative party manifesto takes such a strong tack against international students, when public opinion, members of their own party, and universities themselves take the opposite position.
It is possible that the party is not so much concerned about students at university as they are about the ties that form during this period. People who study abroad form relationships and meet partners, gain employment opportunities or make connections with communities that may entice them to stay indefinitely rather than just for the period of their study. In that way, students from other countries always have the potential to become indelibly tied to their university and the country it is in, even if only a small percentage actually stays.
In this way it seems that the Conservatives are embracing a view of migration that makes little distinction between lawful and unlawful, skilled and unskilled. If even star students are considered a risk that must be controlled and reduced, it sends a message about other types of immigration that people consider even less desirable. It signals that the Conservatives have become the party that is tough on immigrants, with no exceptions.