Last week Universities Minister David Willetts announced that the Office for National Statistics was working on ways to “better count students in immigration flows”. This is likely to mean publishing student migration data separately to overall migration figures, and whilst this is welcomed it simply does not go far enough – international students should not be included in the UK's net migration figures.
Including international students in the figures sends out the message that the UK is uninviting and not an attractive place to study, despite playing host to some of the world's leading universities.
This has long been the view of many manufacturers, and increasingly a number of MPs, with the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee’s recent report Overseas Students and Net Migration recommending that overseas students should not be included in net migration figures for domestic policy purposes.
Instead of scaring off potential talent from studying in the UK, we must become more welcoming. Until the Government’s reforms were introduced, non-EEA students were able to apply for a Tier 1 post-study work visa, allowing them two years in the UK to seek employment after their course ended. This allowed employers to access a wider pool of talent for highly skilled roles.
Now, following the Government's decision to abolish the route, overseas students have little option but to return to their residing country, or attempt to switch from Tier 4 and obtain a visa under Tier 2 General.
Reforms to the migration system have become so strict and rigid that international students barely stand a chance of staying in the UK after completing their studies. Only graduates who have a highly skilled job offer from a licensed sponsor under Tier 2 are able to stay and work in the UK, and bearing in mind their Tier 4 (student) visa will expire four months after the course has ended, this leaves them with little time to secure a job.
On top of this, Tier 2 is subject to even more rules and criteria, a graduate must have a job offer of at least £20,000, or more in specific occupations, and the sponsoring employer would have already been accredited by the UKBA.
Such a complex format is likely to result in the UK losing some of its best international talent to competing countries, damaging the UK’s reputation as a global leader in education.
If the Government is serious about attracting the best and brightest, then it should reintroduce the Tier 1 post-study work route. The argument to abolish the route was that it was subject to widespread abuse; however the Government has introduced various measures to tackle such abuse.
And non-EEA students should not be included in the UK’s net migration figures, as they simply do not enter the UK permanently.
If the post-study work route is reintroduced then, at the point the migrant secures employment would be included in the figures, but only at this point and not before.
We know that the UK is facing a real skills shortage, with manufacturers in particular struggling to recruit employees with the skills they need to grow, instead of closing the talent pool, we should be opening it and we can start to achieve this by making it easier to recruit international students who can make a significant contribution to businesses and the wider economy.