Migration statistics

Written evidence submitted by Universities UK (5STATS 11)


· The government’s target to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ by the end of this Parliament has focussed attention on the measurement of this data. Student visas are the single largest category of visa, and it is unlikely that the target could be reached without significant reductions in the number of international students studying in UK universities. It is therefore vital that immigration statistics, including those relating to international students, are fit for purpose.

· We welcome the government’s recent commitment (in September 2012) to publish disaggregated figures on student visas. However, there are several ways in which published migration statistics could be improved to better inform debate around immigration policy, including student migration. These include:

o Improving the timeliness of the publication of ONS data, by publishing it within three months of the time period to which the data relates, as is the current practice for Home Office immigration data.

o Providing greater detail in Home Office data on visas issued for the purpose of studying in the UK, for example by disaggregating by type of education institution, and publishing this data more frequently than once per year.

o Collecting and publishing information about emigration and exit, so that the impact on net migration of different types of migrant could be better measured. The use of e-Borders to record the categories of visas of those exiting the country could contribute to this. Universities UK is currently establishing a Commission on Exit to examine ways in which universities could assist government in improving the quality of data in this area.

o Further disaggregation of net migration statistics, such as separating permanent from temporary immigration, to improve public understanding of the nature of UK migration. We also think the temporary nature of most student immigration means that it should be excluded from the government’s net migration target.

Do the published migration statistics – at the national, regional and local levels – meet the full range of their users’ needs, namely:

a Are they easily discoverable and accessible to all users?

b Are they easy to use and understand?

c Do they provide an appropriate level of detail?

d Are they effectively summarised?

1. ONS data on net migration is easy to use, although historically the data on emigration has been misleading due to the questions asked of emigrants. Until January 2012 the International Passenger Survey (IPS) asked emigrants their reason for leaving the UK. It did not ask what their original reason for migrating to the UK was. Therefore, if someone arrived in the UK for study purposes, but left for work, the data might suggest that the student never left the country. This is represented in the ‘Long Term International Migration’ (LTIM) release within ONS publications on net migration, and has led to an exaggeration of the contribution that students make to overall net migration. Whilst this particular figure is not usually referenced, taking the data at face value can be problematic, especially to new users.

2. The IPS has been amended to include questions designed to identify emigrants' original reasons for coming to the UK. This will allow for the IPS to more accurately record student departures. The first release of a 12 month data-set reflecting these amended questions is due in August 2013. Until then, this remains a significant flaw in the data.

3. In comparing releases from the ONS with the Home Office, the disparity in reporting periods affects the value of the data. The Home Office data publications on visas are produced within three months of the period they refer to, which is timely. In comparison, the ONS net migration statistics are released with around an eight-month time lag. Seeing as there is some overlap between what is being reported by both parties, it would be of greater value to users of the statistics if publications were coordinated, ideally by bringing ONS data forward.

4. There could be a greater level of detail in Home Office data on entry into the UK. Data is available annually on the number of people admitted into the UK for the purpose of study. However, this data should be available at a more disaggregated level to show the number entering for the purpose of study at higher education institutions. This could be done by using Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) information associated with the visas used by students to enter the UK. Such data ought to be held by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) Sponsor Management Team. Due to the increasing focus on student immigration, data on entry to the UK should also be published more frequently than once a year.

5. It would also be useful for the Home Office to publish data on the numbers of visa nationals (and other non-EEA citizens) exiting the UK. At present, the Home Office compares its own data on admissions with ONS estimates of immigration, but it is impossible to determine the accuracy of ONS emigration data without any supporting evidence on how many people are leaving the UK and for what purpose they arrived originally.

6. In its most recent release, the Home Office has published data on visa applications by education sector using CAS issuances. This is of great use to Universities UK, as we represent higher education institutions only, which have been impacted by immigration reform differently to other education providers such as private and further education colleges. Until this release in November 2012, we did not know the extent to which different institutions were experiencing different changes in demand.

7. Data on visa applications broken down by higher education institution would be of even greater use. This data is held by the UKBA, and would offer a very timely picture of how demand for higher education is changing within the sector, for instance, London compared to the rest of England or Scotland compared to Wales.

8. The summaries accompanying both the Migration Statistics Quarterly Report (ONS) and the Immigration Statistics (Home Office) are useful in measuring the number of people migrating into the UK. However, the value of these summaries would increase significantly if data on emigration and exit were collected by the Home Office, and collected in a more robust manner by the ONS. It is difficult to ascertain the impact of migration without really understanding which types of migrants, such as students, are more likely to remain in the country and for how long.

9. For example, a key source of evidence relating to emigration patterns comes from the Home Office study, ‘The Migrant Journey’, which estimated that 21% of non-EEA students that arrived in the UK in 2004 were still in the country in 2009. The remainder are believed to have left the immigration system. However, without accurate data being collected on the emigration of students, it is not possible to understand the true impact of student migration on population change in the UK.

10. Four years after the period to which this study relates, and following significant changes to the student visa system including the removal of many post-study work opportunities for non-EU students, there is no available data to show how the numbers of non-EEA students leaving the immigration system might have altered. This is an obvious gap.

11. Many of the UKBA’s systems which produce migration data do not 'talk' to each other, hence the need for independent studies like The Migrant Journey to be undertaken. This is costly and inefficient. The planned upgrades to the UKBA's IT systems may improve the amount of data we have available to show an individual's journey through the migration system. However, in implementing upgrades of this nature, the UKBA should routinely consider what positive impact they could have on better statistics and data on migration.

How well have producers of migration statistics engaged with users? How responsive have they been to feedback from users of the statistics?

12. Given the increased focus on net migration as a measure to drive policy, Universities UK raised concerns in the student visa consultation of January 2011 about flaws in the International Passenger Survey. These representations to the Home Office included pointing out that the IPS did not accurately account for students departing the UK on completion of their studies. We subsequently raised these points with ONS officials including the National Statistician later in 2011. We are pleased that our concerns, and those of other stakeholders, have resulted in a change to the IPS questions, introduced in January 2012.

13. In 2012, Universities UK attended workshops and seminars with a focus on migration statistics. This included a very useful workshop on the uses of the International Passenger Survey in which the ONS participated, and an event focussing on whether official migration statistics meet users’ needs, at which the ONS and the Home Office presented very interesting findings. Such events are most welcome.

Do the migration statistics which are published enable members of the public to gain a better understanding of the issues? Are the right migration statistics being collected?

14. Those who do not have a detailed knowledge of how immigration statistics are measured may infer that the net migration statistics relate to a permanent increase in the population. In fact, many people included are coming for a time limited period. It would be useful if the figures could be presented with further disaggregation, for example to show those who are migrating for work for a temporary period of leave of more than one year, students entering for a temporary period of leave of more than one year etc., and then separately present statistics relating to settlement.

15. Without accurate data on emigration, it is impossible for a member of the public to determine the contribution of specific migrant types to net migration. This can lead to some misinterpretation, and more accurate data on emigration is required both for ONS statistical reports and for the Home Office in terms of visa holders exiting the country.

16. The Home Office publishes information on the number of in-country and out-of-country visa issuances, but there is a need for detailed information on visa switchers. Under the old Tier 1 Post Study Work visa, many non-EU students were entitled to remain in the country for a further two years in employment. The way this data was presented in Home Office statistics made it quite clear how many graduates decided to remain in the country to work after their studies. This route was closed in April 2012, which may have had the impact of encouraging overseas students already in the UK to return to their home country, or may have deterred some prospective students from coming to the UK at all. More limited post-study work opportunities are still available to graduates through the Tier 2 (General) route. However, there needs to be more disaggregation within the published data showing how many people granted Tier 2 (General) visas have switched from a Tier 4 student visa. Otherwise it is not clear how the uptake of post-study work has changed since Tier 1 Post Study Work was closed. There is also no clear evidence to demonstrate the impact of the Government's change in policy. This does not help the debate around types of migrants and their impact upon UK society.

Including students within the net migration figures, which the Government aims to reduce to the "tens of thousands", is at odds with other Government policy. Realistically, the target cannot be met without further decreases in the number of

non-EU students coming to the UK. In our view, this is at odds with the Government's recent statements, in response to reports by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and the Lords' Science and Technology Committee, that it is "committed to the sustainable growth of a sector in which the UK excels". [1]

17. We believe that the number of legitimate international students is being affected by their inclusion in the drive to reduce immigration. In academic year 2011/12, the number of first year non-EU students arriving to study at UK higher education institutions fell for the first time in recent years, with the number of students from India falling by almost one-third.

Is the degree of uncertainty surrounding estimates of migration properly reported and widely understood? Is the degree of uncertainty surrounding estimates of migration acceptable or should it be reduced? If so, how could it be reduced?

18. The ONS data of most use to Universities UK is that of non-EU immigration for the purpose of study. However, a breakdown of this level is only available from the IPS, as opposed to the ‘Long-Term International Immigration’ (LTIM) statistics, which form the basis of the net migration ‘official’ results. When non-EU student immigration is discussed, we therefore have no published figure within the LTIM to understand how this migration route compares to the total levels of immigration in the reported results.

19. As an example, the most recent release on net migration (for the year to March 2012), suggests that total immigration for reason of study, (including British, EU and non-EU citizens), was 213,000, whilst in the IPS itself the total was 208,000. The IPS also showed that non-EU student immigration was 163,000, but there is no corresponding figure in the ‘official’ net migration results.

20. Statistics within the reported net migration results are of varying reliability, after taking into account confidence intervals. This could be worrying as the Government continues to drive net migration down, as the ONS data may suggest that the target has been met when it hasn’t, or vice-versa.

21. One means of improving the accuracy of student immigration data might be for the ONS to use official student record data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). This would mean backdating data, but it could greatly assist in identifying overall trends within the student component of immigration.

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

22. The level of uncertainty surrounding some migration estimates can be so high that, on face value, it may appear that levels of migration have changed significantly, but these levels may not be deemed statistically significant by the ONS.

23. The Government’s aim is for its net migration target to be achieved by the end of this Parliament, in 2015. However, due to the time lag associated with ONS net migration data being published, the latest data to be published on net migration before an election might only cover the period July 2013 – June 2014. When the next general election is called, the general public will not have access to up-to-date data on the government's progress towards the net migration target. In a political context, this makes the results less relevant, as net migration can change significantly within the space of twelve months.

24. Universities UK is calling for students to be excluded from the wider net migration target. This is mainly due to the generally temporary nature of student migration, in that the vast majority come to the UK to study, and then leave. This means that, in the long-term, such students would have no lasting impact on net migration, as they are counted both into and out of the country. A reduction in numbers of international students entering the country could, however, produce an apparent short term impact on net migration.

25. Meanwhile, although deterring legitimate international students from coming to the UK would have little long-term impact on net migration, it would almost certainly have a negative impact on recruitment by UK universities and, by extension, their ability to contribute to education export earnings, domestic job creation, and the wider international interests of the UK. Whilst Universities UK has and continues to support every attempt to eliminate abuse of the student visa route of entry, in our view clamping down on the overall number of student visas issued produces little benefit in terms of sustaining net migration at levels lower than it is at present, at a considerable cost.

26. Staff and students from non-EU countries are of vital importance to UK universities, both in enriching the student learning environment, and in maintaining the UK’s reputation for teaching and research. The fact that an approximate number is being pursued in relation to net migration, and is driving immigration policy, could damage many institutions.

27. We note that five parliamentary select committees have each made recommendations about students and their inclusion within the Government’s net migration target. These are:

Home Affairs Committee: The Work of the UK Border Agency (April--June 2012)

"the Government should specify that it will remove student migrants from its reduced net migration target."

Business, Innovation and Skills Committee: Overseas Students and Net Migration

"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. "

Lords’ Science and Technology Committee: Higher Education in STEM subjects

"we recommend that the Government make a distinction in the immigration statistics between HE students and other immigrants and uses only the latter category to calculate net migration for policy-making purposes."

Public Accounts Committee: Immigration: The Points Based System-Student Route

"The Home Office should work with the Office for National Statistics to begin reporting on net migration both with and without students."

Lords’ EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs: The EU’s Global Approach to Managing Migration

"We recommend the removal of international students from the public policy implications of the Government’s policy of reducing net migration. If the Government genuinely favour an increase in bona fide students from outside the EU they should make this clearer and ensure that all policy instruments support this objective."

What more could be done to improve the quality of migration statistics? Should data from other sources, such as e-Borders, be incorporated?

28. There is a significant amount of administrative data that could help in the calculation of student migration, including HESA data on student records and on the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE), which will soon include people from outside the EU as well as those within the EU in monitoring post-study destinations of graduates. Alumni surveys carried out by individual institutions may also be of use. Universities UK is establishing a Commission on Exit to consider how universities could assist government in improving the quality of data they gather in this area.

29. It would be useful if e-Borders data relating to entry and exit could also include data on the visas with which those passports are associated. For example, within e-Borders, the passport numbers of all those leaving the UK on a particular flight could be collected. Whilst this will show which passport holders leave the country and when, it could also be used to identify which visas associated with these passport holders have been ‘checked out’. It would be useful if such data were used to produce high-level statistics on immigration and emigration.

About Universities UK

30. Universities UK is the representative organisation for the UK’s universities. Founded in 1918, its mission is to be the definitive voice for all universities in the UK, providing high quality leadership and support to its members to promote a successful and diverse higher education sector. With 133 members and offices in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh, it promotes the strength and success of UK universities nationally and internationally.

January 2013

[1] Government Response to the Home Affairs Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2012-13, available here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmhaff/825/82504.htm

Prepared 4th February 2013