International Students: Key Issues Explained

Key Facts 12.5

1. Are international students of value to Britain?

Yes, provided that they return at the end of their studies. Students pay fees and contribute to local economies through their living expenses. They also take their expertise when they leave which benefits their home country. Once home, they are more likely to do business with Britain. However, if students stay on in the UK they add to our population growth and the pressure on our public services.

2. Do foreign students go home?

There is evidence to suggest that students are staying on in significant numbers. In 2012 only 49,000 non-EU students left the country, which is just 36% of the average inflow in each of the previous five years. This suggests that large numbers of students are staying on either legally for work or marriage or illegally. Recent data released in November 2013 confirmed this trend.

There is also clear evidence that the student route has abused by people whose real intention was to come to the UK to stay on and work illegally. A study by the National Audit Office estimated that, in the first year of the Points Based System, 40,000-50,000 individuals may have entered the UK on a student visa to work rather than study.[1]

A recent Home Office pilot study found that in India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma, over 50% of applicants who were interviewed to assess their credibility would have failed – many on the grounds that the Entry Control Officer.

(ECO) was not convinced that they were genuine students and that they planned to remain in the UK only on a temporary basis.[2]

The Home Office has rolled out a substantial programme of interviews in high risk countries to deter abuse of the route.

3. Why include students in net migration?

Students comprise 60% of non-EU immigration as recorded in the International Passenger Survey (IPS). This is the basis of net migration figures so to remove students would severely undermine their credibility. Furthermore, students are by no means all temporary since they are able to stay on legally to marry and, if they are graduates and can earn £20,000 a year, to work. They are thus a contribution to population growth.

4. Do our competitors exclude them from net migration?

The UK’s main competitor countries do not exclude students from their net migration calculations. Both the US and Australia include students while categorising students as non-immigrant arrivals in their visa data.[3]

5. Do our competitors have a separate administrative category?

Yes and so do we. Where our competitor countries talk of students as belonging to a non-immigrant category, this refers to visa data. British statistics also show student visas as a separate category. The US and Australian net migration calculation includes everyone who enters for more than a year regardless of their visa category – just like the UK system.

6. What is the economic benefit?

Universities UK claim that the higher education sector is worth almost £8 billion a year. This is misleading since it includes earnings that are not directly related to foreign students and which are unlikely to be greatly affected by marginal changes in their number. Furthermore, this figure includes EU students who are, of course, not subject to immigration control and so are not relevant in this context. Of the £8 billion figure, £4.8 billion refers to tuition fee income and spending by non-EU students subject to immigration control. Some of this money is money that students earn by working here. We estimate that £498 million of this is earned while in the UK. This brings the foreign exchange benefit of non EU students to £4.3 billion.[4] This figure does not account for the cost of providing facilities for these extra students part of which could well fall on public funds.

“Nor does it include the cost of NHS treatment for students; most of them are young and likely to be healthy but, unlike the US and Australia, the UK has no requirement for a prior medical examination.”

7. Are measures to reduce net migration damaging our Universities?

No. The number of applications to Universities has increased by 10 percent in the last two years. The government has closed down 700 bogus colleges and has tightened up the language requirements for students as well as requiring that students wishing to extend their visa show academic progression. The reduction in student numbers has occurred in the further education sector where abuse was rife.[5]

8. Will University students be worth £26.5 billion to the economy in 2025?

No they will not. First, this figure is the value of the education sector as a whole so it includes earnings from sources unrelated to the migration of international students such as publishing materials etc. Only £16.8 billion is the value of higher education, which of course also includes EU students. Importantly however, this figure is based on an increase in the stock of international students from 428,230 in the academic year 2010/11[6] to 642,000 by 2025[7] – an increase of 50%.

9. Are the Australians loosening their controls?

Any such claim is misleading. Following a review of the student visa route the Australians opened up a post study work route to all international graduates of their universities. They also reduced the financial requirements for students[8] but they remain roughly equal to those required by the UK. At the same time they tightened up in many areas. Indeed the number of foreign students going to Australia has fallen sharply in recent years because they have tightened up on bogus students. Large numbers of international students were going to study vocational courses such as cookery and hairdressing mainly because they led to settlement. This route has largely been closed. The Australian authorities also introduced an ‘Intention to Return’ test for all student applicants; those who are considered at interview to have no intention of returning after their studies are now denied visas.

10. Are the Americans loosening their controls?

This is also misleading. They clamped down heavily on foreign students after 9/11, partly for security reasons and partly because they found that 50% of the educational institutions were bogus.[9] In 2005 a series of changes were made to the student visa system which streamlined the service for students. The application process was modified so that all applicants were to be interviewed and hundreds more consular staff were deployed to speed up processing times. Various changes were also made to the type of visa certain students could obtain. For example, Chinese student visas were extended from three months to one year and Iranians from six months to two years. The Americans have always had a post-study work scheme whereby students are able to stay in the US for 12 months in order to obtain experience in a job directly related to their discipline. For students of STEM (scientific) subjects this was increased to 29 months.

11. Is it sensible to compare the UK with the US and Australia?

No. They are both continents while we are a small island. We now have a policy for net migration which they do not have. They do, however, have exit controls so that they know who has overstayed. We are still five years away from that.

Updated 4 February, 2014


  1. National Audit Office, Immigration: The Points Based System – Student Route, March 2012, URL:
  2. Home Office, Tier 4 Student Credibility Pilot, Analysis of Quantitative and Qualitative Data, July 2012, URL:
  3. DIAC, URL:, US Census, URL:
  4. Migration Watch UK, The Economic Value of International Students, August 2012, URL:
  5. UKBA, Overseas Students in the Immigration System: Types of Institution and Levels of Study, December 2010, URL:
  6. HESA, Students in Higher Education Institutions, Table 1, URL:
  7. Demand for student places in 2025 calculated using annual growth rates of 4.7% globally using 2020 of 511,000 as starting point. See British Council, Vision 2020, Forecasting International Student Mobility, A UK Perspective, URL: p. 35.
  8. DIAC,
  9. British Council, Impact of Visa Changes on Student Mobility and Outlook for the UK, 2011. (Only available by subscription)

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