Non-European Student Migration to the UK

2nd April 2014
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Rob McNeil

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.

Key points

  • 2012 student immigration from outside the EU has been estimated at 139,000 (2012, International Passenger Survey), with higher estimates from data on visas issued (193,000) and landing cards from passenger entries (199,490).
  • While fewer students from the Americas have been entering the UK, passenger entries of students from Asia increased from 114,000 in 2008 to 119,000 in 2012.
  • Recent declines in student visas issued have been concentrated in the further education sector and in English language schools.

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 the United Nations definition (adopted by the British government), 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 (IPS). 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 of data on student migration 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 visitor' visas of eleven months or less; these are excluded from the analyses below. Administrative data also do not cover 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.

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International student arrivals falling in various measures

Each relevant data source agrees that student migration comprises a significant share of international migration, but has declined since 2010. But the sources diverge as to the actual number of students arriving, and to the trends over time. In 2012, for example, administrative data on passenger entries and visas each showed just under international students from outside Europe (193,047 visas issued, 199490 passenger entries), while IPS estimates estimated 139,000 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 175,000 international students in 2012. 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. IPS estimates show student migration increasing since the early 1990s to 2010 then decreasing in 2011 and 2012. Reliable visa data are available only from 2007, and show an increase from 2007-2009 and a decrease in 2010-2012. 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 was an increase in passenger entries between 2000 and 2010 that is masked by these changes in data methods and presentation.

Figure 1

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Characteristics of international students: region, gender, level of study

Where do international students come from? According to IPS estimates, in 2012 79% (139,000) were from outside the EU and 16% were from the EU, including 4.5% who were British nationals arriving from abroad (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Passenger entry data give more detail on non-EEA/Swiss nationals, showing the region of origin of those entering the UK to study. In 2012, as shown in Figure 3, the largest contribution came from Asia (excluding the Middle East), with 119,000 passenger entries. Significant recent changes include a sharp drop in students from the Americas (over 90,000 each year from 2004-2007, down to 36,300 in 2012) and a 50% one-year increase in students from Asia from 2008 (114,00) to 2009 (171,000) followed by a drop in 2012 to 119,000.

Figure 3

By gender, according to IPS estimates (not shown here), the majority (51%) of student migrants coming to Britain from all nationalities were female in 2012 for the first time since 1998. This represents a substantial change from the past two years’ estimates (60% male in 2010 and 57% male in 2011), so it remains to be seen if the 2012 results represent an aberration. (Estimates by gender are not available for EU and non-EU arrivals.)

Level of study of international students can be analyzed based on the number of visa sponsorships provided by educational institutions. Figure 4 shows the number of visa applications made by student migrants using visa sponsorships. As seen, 74.5% or 156,535 student migrants were sponsored by UK based Higher Education Institutions in 2012. The remainder were sponsored by Tertiary, further education or other colleges (15.5%), English language schools (1.7%), Independent schools (6%) and others (1.7%). Note that not all students receiving visa sponsorship took up the offer and came to UK.

Figure 4

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Mixed data on student migrants adding to the permanent population

Student visas are temporary, in that they do not provide a direct legal route to settlement. Student migrants are thought to have shorter stays in the UK than other types of migrants. Of those who entered in 2006 on a student visa (or as a student’s dependent), 82% no longer remained in the UK as settled residents or in the immigration control system by the end of 2011 (Home Office 2013). Another 5% of the 2006 cohort remained as students, 3% were still in the UK temporarily on work visas not leading to settlement, and 8% were on a path to settlement or settled here through work, family, or EU routes. This is consistent with results for previous cohorts (see Achato et al. 2010).

However, the first data collected from a new International Passenger Survey (IPS) question suggests that students may depart at a lower rate than Home Office research would indicate. In 2012, the IPS began to ask departing emigrants why they had come to Britain in the first place (for those who were former immigrants rather than people who had always resided in Britain). The first set of results from this question showed only 67,000 departures in 2012 of people who had immigrated to Britain to study. These results suggest a lower rate of exit for those who entered Britain for formal study than indicated by the Home Office research, which track legal leave to remain (and its expiration) rather than actual departures from Britain. The ONS notes that the limited time frame for this question means that there is not a clear picture of how student entries and exits interact over time. Moreover, it is important to be clear that the Home Office research noted above derives from data on visas and Home Office internal case management files, so it is not directly comparable to ONS data from the IPS. Nonetheless, the new data paint a different picture of student emigration than the Home Office studies implied.

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.

Figure 5

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 2 labour migrants the ratio historically has ranged between 10:6.5 and 10:8.

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Evidence gaps and limitations

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 and LTIM 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.
  • Administrative data exclude EEA and Swiss citizen, and include individuals who are not long-term migrants by ONS definitions. Students staying between 6 and 12 months need student visas to enter but do not stay long enough to meet the ONS definition of a long-term migrant. Visa data also include some people who get visas but never come to the UK – a 2010 Home Office 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. The 20% figure is not reliable, as it was drawn from a “convenience sample” and may not be representative, but the conceptual point remains valid. Passenger entry data may double-count some arrivals, or overestimate student entries for some unknown reason. (Passenger entries of students consistently exceed visas, although the reverse should be true if some visa-grantees do not arrive and visas are required for entry.)
  • 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 began in 2010 to ask respondents whether they came to the UK for the purpose of study, so it has limited value for examining trends over time.

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. Until the most recent year’s data, however, IPS has not assessed the number of people studying in the UK and than emigrating, but rather has tracked the number who are leaving to study elsewhere. Thus, the positive “net migration” of students based on past years’ IPS data shows only that more people come to study in the UK than leave the UK to study. It has had no information about the outward flows of people who originally came to the UK as students.

The 2010 Home Office report on student migration, and follow up studies in 2013 and 2014, included an analysis of international students’ compliance. However, this analysis is based on a sample of institutions chosen not at random, but for “convenience”. More specifically, the study examined universities on the UK government’s Highly Trusted Sponsors list, while choosing other educational institutions from a list of those that had been subject to investigations because of suspicions about their legitimacy. Thus, one would suspect that this methodological choice would lead to underestimating non- compliance rates for university students while inflating non-compliance rates for other institutions. Moreover, the data do not show actual overstayers but only the “potentially non-compliant”—those for whom there is no record of leaving the UK or of valid extension of their stay. But since data on exits from the UK are among the weakest points in UK migration data, this study cannot be taken as an accurate measure of actual overstaying or “non-compliance”, either overall or for students at particular types of institutions. New data from the IPS, discussed above, may fill this gap in time.

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 the Migrant Journey research reports produced by the Home Office (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.

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  • 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.

Further Reading

  • 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. .

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