Student numbers drop causing net migration to fall to lowest level for a decade

Net migration has fallen to 153,000 in the year to September 2012, which senior Conservative ministers are hailing as a success. The majority of the drop came from reduced numbers of students coming to the UK despite ongoing debates about whether students should be counted as migrants.

The latest data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that immigration fell from 581,000 to 500,000 whilst emigration rose from 339,000 to 347,000. According to the ONS the reduction in immigration includes 56,000 fewer students and 18,000 fewer people coming because they have family in the UK.

According to the Home Office press release the data reveals the following:

  • a 5% increase in sponsored student visa applications for the university sector
  • a 5% increase in visas issued to skilled workers.
  • a 10% increase in study visas issued for Chinese nationals in the year to March 2013
  • a 6% increase in student visitor visas in the year to March 2013
  • a fall in overall number of visas (excluding visitors and transit) by 6% in year ending March 2013, the lowest 12 month total for which comparable data is available

However, whilst these statements are correct they do not cover every element of the new data. Whilst the steps taken to reduce abuses of the student visa system by ‘bogus colleges’ the reductions in student numbers already seen are larger than any previous estimates of abuse. This means genuine students are being kept out, or are deciding not to apply in the first place.

As reported in the Guardian, Official figures for sponsored student visa applications show that the downward trend is likely to have continued in the six months between September and March. The latest visa figures for March show a 10% reduction compared with the previous year. So far the fall in student visa applications has been concentrated in further education (down 46%), English language schools (down 46%) and independent schools (down 7%). University visa applications are up by 5%.

Much more importantly, the current reduction in net migration won’t last. Because most students return home within 5 years, the current reduction in net migration will lead to a drop in emigration in 4-5 years. This means we can expect net migration to rise sharply around 2017. Significantly, this is after the next general election. Future critics of any subsequent UK government would do well to remember this.

Criticism has also come from within the government following publication of the data. The business secretary, Vince Cable, expressed concerns about the damage the new student visa rules were having on the economy as a result of “a statistical anomaly, in that the UN, in its wisdom, has classified overseas students as immigrants, which they are not.” Cable also said, “All the evidence suggests the British public do not see [students] as immigrants, but nonetheless they have got caught up in this very torrid and emotional debate in the UK ... When, as last week, [net migration] declines, this is [seen as] a great triumph for immigration control – which is quite absurd and unfortunately is seriously distorting the debate on sensible university policy and sensible immigration policy ... I just want to make absolutely clear, as far as the government is concerned we have no cap on the number of overseas students, we don’t propose to introduce one.”

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