Migration statistics

Written evidence submitted by Professor Edward Acton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and Chair, Universities UK working group on student visa issues (5STATS 03)




Because the estimates of migration have been made a cornerstone of Home Office immigration policy, the high degree of uncertainty surrounding them is not acceptable.

They are inadequate for measuring the Government's progress against its net migration target. Policy is based on the difference between two very imprecise estimates taken from the International Passenger Survey (IPS). This makes the scope for statistical error huge.

The statistics could be quickly improved if the Home Office implemented the proposal made for the last 18 months by UUK, i.e. to pilot use of eBorders by combining it with the meticulous data on each individual university student collected by the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) in order to test the credibility of the IPS count of non-EU former students exiting the UK. The overwhelming likelihood is confirmation of a very high level of visa compliance and the unanswerable imperative to lift university students out of the net migration target.

The stakes are high for the future of British Higher Education, economy and place in the world. No fewer than five select committees of both Houses have already recommended that university-sponsored students be lifted out of the net migration target [1] . Including them, as now, flouts directly government commitment to increase the number of overseas university students coming to Britain. Yet the Home Office is ploughing ahead regardless of the damage to our balance of payments, economy, job creation, international reputation, scientific strength and cultural advantage. The UK's steady growth in non-EU student recruitment halted abruptly in 2011. Our market share suddenly declined and in key markets, notably India, we suffered steep falls. All the indications are of graver decline for September 2012 entry.

Note: This evidence addresses the Committee’s questions 4, 5 and 6. It sets out the main points of debate surrounding the treatment of university students in migration statistics. A much more detailed analysis of the flaws in these statistics is appended in my Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) occasional paper, The UKBA’s Proposed Restrictions on Tier 4 visas: the threat to University recruitment of overseas students (February 2011).

4. Is the degree of uncertainty surrounding estimates of migration acceptable or should it be reduced? If so, how could it be reduced?

1. It should be reduced. The Home Office's goal of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands is defined by the estimates drawn from the International Passenger Survey (IPS). The IPS relies on a very small sample (1 in 500). The vast majority of those interviewed are short-term travellers : only a tiny fraction are migrants. Moreover, since the survey is voluntary, systemic error is all too easy. Young people, especially men, in particular seem disinclined to volunteer for the survey. Failure adequately to count young people exiting the UK was the biggest single source of error in population estimates before the 2001 census.

2. The Home Office's own Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) was asked in 2010 to advise on visa limits and ordered to rely on the IPS. It has studied the matter closely. It found the data on exit by non-EU citizens who had come to the UK to study was too sparse to be credible. It therefore carried out a detailed but little-read analysis, using IPS figures for 2008 [1] . Its conclusion indicated that the IPS had undercounted the exit figure by 50,000.

3. So uncertain are the statistics, that in advising the Home Office how to achieve the goal of bringing net migration as measured by the IPS under 100,000, the MAC recommended a total net migration target of 50,000. Had the Home Office accepted MAC's estimate of the undercounting of former student exit, the logic would have been to double that figure. The result would have been to ease sharply the pressure to go beyond cutting abuse. There would have been no need to proceed, as the Home Office has done and is doing, to alienate thoroughly legitimate prospective university applicants from coming to the UK.

4. Used as they are currently used, these statistics are doing profound damage to British interests by placing university-sponsored students in direct line of Home Office fire, and savagely reducing the appeal of British universities in key Commonwealth and other non-EU markets.

5. Are the migration statistics adequate for measuring the Government’s progress against its net migration target?


5. No they are not. This is because they are based on the IPS whose inadequacies have time and again been condemned by Parliamentary Committees as not fit for (migration statistic) purpose.


6. The net migration calculation is based on the difference between two very imprecise estimates taken from the IPS, total inflow of migrants and total exit of migrants. This makes the scope for statistical error huge.


7. In this situation, it is entirely possible that the Government will tighten visa limits when net migration is in fact much lower than the IPS suggests, and loosen them when it is much higher than the IPS suggests. They are not a sound basis on which to achieve a critical aim in a democracy: trust that the state is in effective control of the borders.

8. The IPS's gravest weakness is in grossly understating non-EU student exit, and thus grossly overstating the net migration arising on the study route.

6. What more could be done to improve the quality of migration statistics? Should data from other sources, such as eBorders , be incorporated?

9 . The statistics could be quickly improved if the Home Office implemented the proposal made for almost two years by UUK. The meticulous data on each individual university student collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), if combined with eBorders , would test the credibility of the non-EU student exit number. The exercise would pilot the use of eBorders to give Britain sounder migration statistics. It would help in implementing the Government's stated commitment (a)to disaggregate student numbers from the rest, and (b) to improve the student exit count.

10. It would also compel a reappraisal in the Home Office's attitude to university-sponsored students, which is currently hostile to the national interest. It would do so because it would expose the contradiction on which current Home Office policy rests:

a) The Home Office treats the IPS estimate of net migration as sacrosanct.

b) Yet the Home Office's own MAC regards the IPS data on former student exits flows, a vital element in the IPS overall estimate, as not credible.

c) The only situation in which that data could be valid is if university-sponsored students have been illegally overstaying in the UK on a massive scale.

d) Yet the Home Office has itself published detailed analysis indicating that compliance by university-sponsored students is at least 98% and quite possibly higher, and has repeatedly confirmed the generally excellent level of visa compliance by university-sponsored students.

e) When UUK urged an eBorders exercise to test the credibility of the IPS, and even offered to fund it, the Home Office declined. The reason given was that, since UUK proposed to restrict the exercise to university-sponsored students, there was no point: their visa compliance was not in doubt.

11. Conclusion

Were the inadequacies of the current statistics to be addressed in the way that I have discussed, above, the Home Office would have every justification for the lifting of university-sponsored students out of net migration targets: a change which would be both methodologically and politically advantageous for the public understanding of the position of universities in this most sensitive of debates.

To do otherwise, and to persist with a system that is fundamentally flawed is of serious and lasting disadvantage to this generation of university students and is liable to do permanent damage to our heritage. The damage already done to Britain's reputation in sensitive markets such as India is dire. Time is now of the essence.

January 2013

[1] House of Lords Science and Technology Committee,17 July 2012, Home Affairs Committee, 23 July 2012, Public Accounts Committee, 4 September 2012, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, 6 September 2012, House of Lords European Union Committee, 11 December 2012

[1] Limits on Migration , Migration Advisory Committee, November 2010, especially Appendix B.

Prepared 4th February 2013