Non-European Student Migration to the UK
This briefing sets out to answer key questions about how many students from outside Europe come to the UK, how long they stay, how many family members come with them, what they are studying, whether they work during their study here and how many of them change status and choose to settle permanently in the UK.
- 2011 student immigration from outside the EU has been estimated at 180,000 (2011, International Passenger Survey), with higher estimates from data on visas issued (237,000) and landing cards from passenger entries (248,000).
- While fewer students from the Americas have been entering the UK, passenger entries of students from Asia increased from 114,000 in 2008 to 171,000 in 2009, remained similar (172,000) in 2010 but decreased in 2011 to 161,000.
- By gender, men consistently make up the majority of students coming to the UK, with 2011 IPS data estimating that 57% of people migrating to the UK for the main purpose of formal study were male.
- In 2012, Higher Education Institutions made up 75% of visa applications of students accepted for study, up from 56% in 2010. This mainly reflects a decrease in such visa applications from other types of educational institutions, including further education colleges and English language schools.
- On average, student migrants have shorter stays in the UK than those who migrate for family or work; among students entering the UK in 2006, 17% remained in the UK with legal leave to remain by 2011.
Understanding the evidence
For the purpose of estimating the contribution of students to overall counts of Long-Term International Migration (LTIM), which students meet the relevant definition of who counts as a migrant? By government definition, those who reside in the UK for at least 12 months are migrants. Official Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates of net international migration are based on entrants’ expressed intent to stay for at least one year, as collected on the International Passenger Survey. So, in this measure, entrants to the UK who say they are here for formal study and who say that they plan to stay in the UK for at least 12 months are counted as migrants by the ONS. Alternative sources come from administrative data on “entry clearance visas” issued to students, and “passenger entries” into the UK of international students. Passenger entry data is based on a projection from a sample of landing cards filled out at ports of entry; visa data are actual counts of all visas issued. These data sources do not fully exclude international students expected to stay for less than one year, and who are therefore not classified as migrants by government definition. They do, however, track “student visitors” of eleven months or less (formerly six months or less); these are excluded from the analyses below. Administrative data also exclude European and British nationals, since visas and landing cards are required only of people subject to immigration control. (Nationalities subject to immigration control are non-EEA [European Economic Area] countries, with the exception of Switzerland, often shortened to “non-EEA/Swiss nationals.”)
International students attend a wide range of institutions, including universities, colleges, language schools, vocational schools, English language schools, and independent fee-paying secondary schools. They range from secondary school-age children to postgraduate student researchers. Higher Education Institutions are ‘recognised bodies’ with the power to award degrees (or offer full provision leading to a degree), and include all UK universities as well as some higher education colleges.
Each relevant data source agrees that student migration now constitutes the largest category of migration to the UK (compared to work, family, and asylum). But the sources diverge as to the actual number of students arriving, and to the trends over time. In 2011, for example, administrative data on passenger entries and visas each showed between 235,000 and 250,000 international students from outside Europe (237,028 visas issued, 247,510 passenger entries), while IPS estimates estimated 180,000 non-EU (and non-British) migrants coming for the purpose of formal study. Adding British and other EU nationals (plus adjustments for changes to length-of-stay) yields an LTIM estimate of 232,000 international students in 2011. The difference might arise from counting students who stay for less than one year in administrative data, but it is impossible to know for sure from the presently available data. (For more on discrepancies between sources, see Evidence gaps and limitations below.)
As Figure 1 shows, the trends over time differ by data source, although these differences appear to have been reduced by improved data collection. IPS estimates show student migration increasing since the early 1990s to 2010 then decreasing in 2011. Reliable visa data are available only from 2007, and show an increase from 2007-2009 and a decrease in 2010-2011. Trends in passenger entry data are not clearly interpretable for two reasons. First, student visitors were included in this series until mid-2007; second, in mid-2003, the Home Office improved its methods of determining these data from samples of landing cards, making pre-2004 data less comparable. It appears, then, that earlier data overestimated student entries. This means that there probably has been an increase in passenger entries since 2000 that is masked by these changes in data methods and presentation.
Characteristics of international students: region, gender, level of study
Where do international students come from? According to IPS estimates, in 2011 80% (180,000) were from outside the EU and 20% were from the EU, including 2.2% of the total who were British nationals arriving from abroad (see Figure 2). (Note that these figures are based on the IPS estimate of 226,000 people coming to the UK for the purpose of study in 2011, among all nationalities. Adjusted LTIM estimates place the total figure at 232,000 but are not broken down by nationality.)
Passenger entry data give more detail on non-EEA/Swiss nationals, showing the region of origin of people entering the UK to study. In 2011, as shown in Figure 3, the largest contribution came from Asia (excluding the Middle East), with 161,000 passenger entries. Significant recent changes include a drop in students from the Americas (over 90,000 each year from 2004-2007, down to 39,000 in 2011) and a 50% one-year increase in students from Asia from 2008 (114,000) to 2009 (171,000) followed by a drop to 161,000 by 2010.
By gender, according to IPS estimates, 57% of people arriving for formal study in 2011 were male. Men made up a majority of student migrants coming to Britain in every year since 1999, with annual proportions reaching as high as 60% male in 2010.
New Home Office data provide evidence on the proportion of international students studying at different levels and types of institutions. These data show visa applications based on Confirmations of Acceptance for Studies (CASs), documents from a sponsor permitting a student to enroll at an educational institute, and required for foreign students’ visas. In 2012, 75% (156,537) of visa applications based on CASs were for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), while 15% were for tertiary or further education or other colleges, 2% for English language schools, 7% for independent schools, and 2% for other institutions. This contrasts with the previous years, which saw 56% of CAS-based visa applications coming from the HEI portion of the sector, while 31% came from tertiary, further education, or other colleges, and 4% from English language schools (8% in 2010). As Figure 4 shows, amidst an overall decline from 2011 to 2012, the HEI category saw an increase while the other portions of the education sector all saw declines, including a drop of over 50,000 in the tertiary, further education, and other college category and almost 8,000 among English language schools.
Student visas are temporary, in that they do not provide a direct legal route to settlement. Student migrants typically have shorter stays in the UK than other types of migrants. Of those who entered in 2006, 82% no longer remained in the UK as settled residents or in the immigration control system by the end of 2009. Another 17% of the 2006 cohort retained limited leave to remain in the UK (5% as students, 12% with other forms of leave to remain, while 1% had attained settlement, or indefinite leave to remain (Home Office 2013).
Those wishing to stay in the UK beyond the terms of their initial student visa have several options: they might apply for an extension to their student visa, or apply for a new visa under a work or family category. Some might avoid the immigration system and stay on without a visa, but, as noted below, overstayers are difficult to estimate, and impossible to count directly using administrative data, as they evade the immigration control system.
Extensions granted annually to non-EEA students appear in Figure 5. Refusals have been relatively rare, although they have been higher during the initial stages of the Points-Based System than previously. Note that these data refer to extensions granted to remain in the UK as students, and do not include students who extend their stay through transfer to work or family routes.
Students not only have shorter stays, but they also bring fewer dependents than other categories of migrants. The ratio of main applicants to dependents awarded Tier 4 Student visas is approximately 10:1 (slightly more than one dependent visa is granted entry for every 10 main applicant student visas). For Tier 1 and Tier 2 labour migrants the ratio has typically been closer to 10:8.
The usual inconsistencies among different sources of data on UK migration flows apply to the estimation of student migration. The sources of data include Home Office Immigration Statistics, estimates from the International Passenger Survey, and changes in the population of foreign students in the UK estimated by the quarterly Labour Force Survey.
Each of these sources has important limitations as a measure of student migrants coming to the UK.
- IPS is a survey of a randomly-selected sample of passengers entering and leaving the UK, rather than an actual count of migrants and other passengers. This has several implications. First, the IPS yields only estimates of migration, and these estimates come with a substantial margin of error as well as possible unknown biases. Further, the IPS detects students through a single question asking passengers to report their primary reason for migration; thus it might undercount students if some give a different primary reason for coming to the UK, including work or accompanying family. The IPS includes EU as well as non-EU nationalities. The ONS publishes estimates of EU and non-EU citizens separately, but these estimates are based only on IPS data and do not include the adjustments (e.g. for “switching” from short-term to longer-term stays in the UK) that the ONS makes to produce LTIM from IPS data. The estimates of student migration from IPS data are usually slightly lower than adjusted LTIM estimates.
- Immigration statistics from administrative (Home Office) sources exclude EEA and Swiss citizens. Visa data also include some people who get visas but never come to the UK – the Home Office’s 2010 report on students found that, for a subset of educational institutions they examined, 20% of those offered admission and granted a CAS and/or visa did not enter the UK, but these were drawn from a “convenience sample” and may not be representative.
- LFS data probably undercount students, especially those living in dormitories and other communal dwellings. Also, the LFS includes information on the number of international students in the UK at any one time, but has only just begun (in 2010) to ask respondents whether they came to the UK for the purpose of study.
Estimating the contribution of students to net migration, as opposed to simply total inward migration, adds further problems. IPS currently provides the only estimates of outward migration. (The UK Border Agency’s eBorders program will provide data on departures when it is complete and fully functioning.) Yet its estimates of the net contribution of the student pathway can easily be misinterpreted: rather than tracking the net flow of those who enter the UK to study, IPS (and LTIM estimates derived from it) assesses the number coming to the UK to study and the number who are leaving to study elsewhere. Thus, the positive “net migration” of students shows only that more people come to study in the UK than leave the UK to study. It says nothing about the outward flows of people who originally came to the UK as students.
Overstaying should not be confused with legitimate extensions to student visas, as sometimes occurs in media reports (as in the headline correction in McVeigh 2010) Legitimate extensions through work, family, or extended study are shown in administrative data and examined in a recent Home Office research report (Achato et al. 2010, Home Office 2013).
Finally, there has been concern among politicians and the public about “bogus colleges” sponsoring entries but not actually offering courses of study (Anderson and Rogaly 2005), and about possible “non-compliance”— students overstaying their visas and staying in the UK without legal permission to remain. As is generally true for non-compliance with immigration law, it is difficult to capture these in official data because of the nature of non- compliance. The Home Office studied the issue of bogus colleges in 2007, prior to the PBS and the tightening of rules for institutions registering to teach foreign students. This study found that 25% of 1200 colleges inspected were not “genuine” (Home Affairs Committee 2009), but there are no comparable data on post-PBS accredited institutions. A more recent Home Office study (Home Office 2010) may not provide valid estimates as it relied on samples of convenience rather than representative samples.
- Achato, Lorrah, Mike Eaton, and Chris Jones. “The Migrant Journey.” Home Office Research Report 43, Home Office, London, 2010.
- Anderson, B. and B. Rogaly. “Forced Labour and Migration to the UK.” Study prepared by COMPAS in collaboration with the Trades Union Congress, TUC, London, 2005.
- Home Affairs Committee. Bogus Colleges: Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09. House of Commons, 2009. HC 595.
- Home Office. “The Migrant Journey: Third Report.” Home Office, London, 2013.
- Home Office. “Overseas Students in the Immigration System: Types of Institution and Levels of Study.” UK Border Agency, Home Office, London, 2010.
- McVeigh, Karen. “One in Five Overseas Students Remains in UK after Five Years, Home Office Report Shows.” Guardian, September 6, 2010.
- King, Russell, Allan Findlay, and Jill Ahrens. “International Student Mobility Literature Review.” Report to HEFCE, co-funded by the British Council, UK National Agency for Erasmus, Cardiff, 2010. .