A new study has revealed discrepancies between government claims and actual statistics concerning international students overstaying their visas.
The report by the Office for National Statistics revealed that only about 4,600 international students overstayed their visas in 2016, not returning home after their visa expired.
The study also found that ‘there is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay’ and adds that the complexity of people’s lives should be considered as, ‘some people arrive on a work visa and legitimately change to a study visa and vice versa.’
In contrast, the UK government’s estimates had been close to 100,000 students remaining in the UK illegally each year.
As Home Secretary, Prime Minster Theresa May had been particularly fond of using the rhetoric. ‘The fact is, too many of them (international students) are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out,’ May stated in 2015.
‘If they have a graduate job, that is fine. If not, they must return home. So, I don’t care what the university lobbyists say, the rules must be enforced.’
Limiting immigration was a central aim in the Conservative manifesto and of the 2010-2015 coalition government. Today the Conservative Party is accused of blowing up the issue. Vince Cable, now the Liberal Democrat leader, who sat in cabinet alongside May, told the BBC that May was ‘obsessed’ with the topic.
National Union of Students’ (NUS) International Students’ Officer Yinbo Yu condemned the political climate of scapegoating international students.
‘The past few years have seen dozens of inflammatory stories and outright miscalculations suggesting that thousands of migrants were remaining in the country ‘illegally’ and exploiting the system,’ said Yu.
‘International students are not trying to exploit the immigration system, nor are they a drain on the UK, in fact the opposite is the case. Rhetoric about the UK being flooded with students who are intending to overstay their visas are simply unfounded.’
The benefits of international students in the UK are widely acknowledged. As Bob Neill, the former Conservative minister, told The Guardian: ‘There is a recognition that post-Brexit our education sector, our higher education sector, is a big selling point.’
‘We actually ought to be attracting talent. A lot of these people will go back but have connections with the UK and that works in our country’s interest in terms of trade. It is classic soft power.’
NUS International Students’ Officer Yu welcomed the new findings and called for international students to be taken off immigration statistics.
‘Low number of student over-stayers and the role international students play in economic growth suggest no reason to continue with this restrictive regime that puts international students off from studying here.’
‘International students need to feel welcome in our institutions now and post-Brexit. This must start with government policy – removing them from net migration figures is imperative.’
‘The government and policy makers must understand the true value of international students, and we hope that this investigation is the first step to doing so,’ the NUS activist said.
By Titi Farukuoye