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Fumbled student figures threaten UK immigration policy

By Angus McNeice in London | | Updated: 2017-08-25 23:58

The Conservative UK government's immigration policy has come under fire after estimates for the number of foreign students who overstay their visas were revealed to be hugely inaccurate.

Prime Minister Theresa May faces mounting pressure to remove foreign students from immigration figures after new data from the Office for National Statistics showed that just 4,600 international students remained in the UK after their visas expired last year. The government's previous estimates had been in the region of 100,000.

May has repeatedly shot down calls to exclude foreign students from the Conservatives' mooted policy to limit net migration to the UK to the "tens of thousands".

The UK Parliament's Education Committee recommended in a recently published report that international students should be listed under a "separate classification" and not be counted against the overall migration limit.

Chancellor Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and Education Minister Jo Johnson have all raised concerns that limiting net migration will deter foreign students from coming to the UK.

The new data appeared in a Home Office report published in August. The figures are described as "experimental statistics" achieved through an exit checks program that analyses passenger ticket bookings, passport swipes at the border, and immigration records.

The report found that of the 181,024 international students whose visas expired last year, 97.4 percent departed the UK on time and a further minority left after their visas expired. The Office for National Statistics corroborated that the majority of students in 2015 and 2016 either left when their visas expired or were granted extensions.

Tim Bradshaw, director of the Russell Group, an association of 24 UK universities, said: "This exit check data confirms that in addition to helping create a diverse learning environment and making a big economic impact, an overwhelming majority of international students comply fully with the terms of their visas."

Ning Yang, director of admissions and immigration service Sunrise Immigration, believes it would be "unwise" for the government to include foreign students in its plans to limit migration.

"Chinese students are making a contribution to UK economy," Yang said. "Local accommodation, housing, and restaurants all benefit from them."

There are more students from China in the UK than from any other non-EU nation, and China is the only country showing a significant increase in student numbers.

In 2016, 91,215 Chinese students were studying in the UK for higher education degrees. The number has increased annually by 1.8 percent since 2013.

Cao Yuan, director of admissions agency O4U, says Chinese students still identify the UK as an attractive place to study.

"Chinese students are still willing to come," Yuan said. "They are coming because studying in the UK is more economical, it only takes one year to obtain a Master's degree. Education in the UK still has a good reputation in China."

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