Too Little, Too Late: Committee's observations on the Government Response to the Report on Overseas Students and Net Migration - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

1  Introduction


1.  On 4 September 2012, we published a Report on Overseas Students and Net Migration.[1] That Report considered the way the Government classifies overseas students in net migration figures. The Report did not recommend the removal of overseas students from migration statistics, nor did it recommend that the Government deviate from the UN definition of migration for international data returns. In fact, our Report recognised "the need for an agreed definition for the international reporting of migrants" and agreed that "the UN definition is a useful tool in that respect".[2]

2.  The Report went on to note that while the UN definition of migration included overseas students, the Government "was under no obligation to use that definition for the development of domestic policy". We concluded that:

Removing overseas students from the Government's migration targets would allow universities to compete on a level playing field with their international competitors. It would also allow the Home Office to concentrate on economic migrants and their value to the United Kingdom.[3]

The key recommendation in the Report was as follows:

We recommend that, for domestic policy purposes, overseas students should be recorded under a separate classification and not be counted against the overall limit on net migration. That does not mean that we wish to hide the level of overseas students studying in the UK. The Government could make clear the distinction by publishing, alongside its net migration data, detailed information on the number of overseas students studying in the UK, their country of origin, the number who remain here after they have completed their studies and the number who remain in higher education. Such an approach would make clear the difference between permanent immigration and study and crucially it would demonstrate clearly that the United Kingdom welcomes overseas students and values the contribution they make to our economy.[4]

The Government Response

3.  There is a long-standing convention that Government Departments should respond to select committee reports within two months. In some circumstances a longer delay "may be considered permissible when those circumstances have been explained to the committee concerned".[5] Given the fact that policy in this area is determined by both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office we accepted that there would be some delay in receiving a response.

4.  The Government published its response on Tuesday 26 February,[6] nearly four months after the two month deadline. Given this extended delay we would have expected it to have been a thorough and detailed piece of work. It is not and it falls short of the level of quality we would expect from a Government Department.

5.  We do not normally publish a Report so soon after a Government Response. However, on this occasion we believe that this is necessary. Not only is the Response very short but there are a number of assertions and statements which need to be challenged.


6.  Higher Education is a key economic sector for the UK economy. As the Government notes:

Education exports (encompassing higher and further education, schools, English Language Teaching and educational products and services) contribute more than £14bn to the UK economy each year.[7]

7.  Our Report stated that UK universities are an "export success story" but highlighted the fact that they were taking "an increasingly pessimistic view" in their future projections of market share in the overseas student market. We concluded that it was clear that "the Government's policies in respect of student immigration have played a significant part in this decline" and that this should be of "deep concern to the Government". We therefore made the following recommendation:

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has a responsibility to support UK universities, and to promote export success. As a matter of urgency it needs to demonstrate that it has an active strategy to support the expansion of this important and lucrative market.[8]

8.  The Government's response addressed that recommendation in the following terms:

In September 2012, Vince Cable announced that the Government will develop strategies for a number of sectors in which the UK has a competitive advantage and where government action could support their growth, including education. Work has already commenced on this strategy, and its overarching objective is "to exploit the excellence of the UK education sector to increase export earnings and the UK's international influence". The strategy will be co-created with industry and other sectoral organisations, and will be published between now and next summer.[9]

9.  The Government's timetable to publish a strategy sometime between now and next summer is unacceptable. It shows a complete lack of understanding about the urgency which is required. There is a perception overseas that the UK is becoming less welcome to overseas students. Delaying the publication of this strategy until some indeterminate time in the future runs the risk that this perception will harden and therefore could undermine the ability of UK Universities to expand their share of the overseas market. It also runs contrary to the Prime Minister's vigorous efforts to promote UK Universities abroad; most recently seen during his visit to India earlier in February.

10.  The Government's loose timetable of "between now and next summer" for a strategy to promote the Higher Education sector is unacceptable. The Government has to produce a deliverable strategy to support UK Universities far more quickly, and in any case before the end of June 2013. This would give us the opportunity to review it before the summer recess.


11.  The Government's response contains a number of assertions which we believe are open to challenge.

12.  In respect of international definitions for net migration, the Government stated that:

The OECD does not have a separate definition of net migration and supports use of the UN's definition. However, since some countries do not collect this data, for example because they do not have registration systems or measure outflows, it has produced a 'harmonised' set of data to compare immigration across different countries.[10]

This runs contrary to the evidence given to us. In particular, it fails to acknowledge the fact that the OECD classifies overseas students as temporary migrants for the first 36 months—the length of a 3 year degree course. This is a key difference and one which should not be ignored.[11]

13.  The Government goes on to say that:

All the UK's major competitors include students in their figures for net migration. These countries also distinguish between different categories of migrant in their immigration statistics, but information on emigrants can be much more limited.[12]

At best, we believe that this is only a partial reflection of the facts. As Universities UK pointed out to us, the US, Canada and Australia all treat international students as temporary migrants for domestic policy development.[13]

14.  The Government also appears to dispute the negative impact that its approach is having on the Higher Education sector. In its response, it states that:

New data relating to visa applications by education sector was published as part of the quarterly immigration statistics for the first time on 29 November. This information is an important ongoing contribution to the available data on student migration. Statistics for July to September 2012 showed that the university sector accounted for 74% of visa applications, up from 52% in the same period the previous year, reflecting falls in other sectors while the university sector held steady. The Government's success in reducing abuse of student visas, while the number of successful applicants to study at British universities is up, means that we can now look forward to a period of policy stability on student migration policy.[14]

However, figures provided to us by Universities UK paint a very different picture. They indicate that:

  • The number of first year non-EU students at Higher Education Institutes decreased by 0.4% in 2011-12, largely as a result of a decrease amongst postgraduates. Non-EU entrants to postgraduate degrees fell by 2% between 2010 and 2011.
  • The overall number of non-EU students enrolled on courses in universities is up by 1.5% from 2010-2011. However, this is driven by increases in the number of new entrants in previous years, many of whom are enrolled on courses lasting more than one year. (The critical figure with which to judge the impact of Government policy is new enrolments in year 2011-12.)
  • The total number of non-EU students enrolled on postgraduate courses dropped for the first time in ten years, before which records are not directly comparable.
  • Recent figures released by the Home Office show that Tier 4 visa applications are substantially down, although the majority of the decrease is accounted for by a decrease in the number of visa applications for study at further education institutions and private colleges. Visa applications for study at HEIs are flat. In the context of a rapidly growing and highly competitive international market, and the government's commitment to 'sustainable growth in a market in which the UK excels', this is a cause for concern.[15]

15.  The Government also appears to rely at least in part on a 2010 Home Office study which stated that:

Around one in five international students who came to the UK in 2004 were still in the immigration system five years later.[16]

That study was based on a cohort of students who were studying before the current Government came to power. As such we do not see the relevance of the study to current immigration policy, not least because they precede those measures introduced to tackle visa abuse which the Government focused on heavily in its response.

16.  If the Government is to deliver credible response to our recommendations it needs to set out the facts in far greater depth and detail. The current evidence base is too weak to justify a policy with such profound implications for the FE and HE sectors. As a start, we expect the Government to respond to the questions raised as a matter of urgency.


17.  It is not just our Committee which believe that the reclassification of overseas students as temporary migrants for domestic policy purposes is necessary. Five parliamentary committees have considered this issue and last month the Chairs of those Committees—Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Public Accounts Committee, Home Affairs Committee, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education wrote to the Prime Minister urging the change of policy.[17] The Government Response should have taken that collective view into account. It is clear that it did not.

18.  The Government's Response was late, woefully short on detail and fails to take account of recent developments. It seeks to underplay the urgency of the problem and thus excuse the failure to act decisively to address this serious matter. The Government should listen, think again and change course.

1   Fourth Report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Overseas Students and Net Migration, HC 425 of Session 2012-13 Back

2   HC (2012-13) 425, para 24 Back

3   HC (2012-13) 425, para 38 Back

4   HC (2012-13) 425, para 39 Back

5   Erskine May, 24th Edition, page 837 Back

6   Government Response to the Fourth Report from the Business, Innovation And Skills Committee Session 2012-13 HC 425: Overseas Students And Net Migration, Cm 8557  Back

7   CM 8557, page 1 Back

8   HC (2012-13) 425, para 15 Back

9   Cm 8557, page 1 Back

10   Cm 8557 page 2 Back

11   HC (2012-13) 425, Q16, Ev 26 Back

12   Cm 8557, page 4 Back

13   HC (2012-13) 425, Q8, Ev 25 Back

14   Cm 8557, page 3 Back

15   See Appendix Back

16   Cm 8557, page 2 Back

17   Migration target must leave out students, MPs say-Letter from chairs of five parliamentary committees tells PM that student visa policy needs to encourage study in Britain, The Guardian, 31 January 2013 Back

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Prepared 28 February 2013