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Should the Migration Advisory Committee be asked to look at the costs and benefits of international students?

  • 2 July 2014

Sir Andrew Green, who heads up MigrationWatch (‘an independent, voluntary, non political body which is concerned about the present scale of immigration’), has poured cold water over the recent HEPI survey of Conservative election candidates on international students.

In particular, he complains it was small. It was indeed, but then there aren’t many Tory election candidates in post yet – the party’s website lists 67. What matters is less the total number of responses and more the proportion of total potential respondents they make up – the answer to which is 26% (though the survey is still live, so it could go higher and we will update the results if they change materially). We’ve been open about the size of the survey and Sir Andrew only knows it is small because we have told the world that it is – and explained the methodology.

It’s important to remember that, although the results should obviously be treated with caution, the only way to find out what a party’s candidates think is to ask them. Because we did so, there are now a few small nuggets of new information that no one knew before which should, at the very least, be kept in mind when election manifestoes are written.

MigrationWatch are free to ignore them, but there is a bigger point here that is at risk of being lost. The HEPI survey was designed to start a debate – which it has – rather than to be the final word because there is a hole in our evidence on international students. If Sir Andrew is saying we need better information on student migrants, their impact and people’s views about them, he is right. Some individual universities have had a go at assessing the full impact of international students on their geographical areas but there has been no national assessment that has resonated loudly around Whitehall.

There might be an easy off-the-shelf solution to this problem. The Home Office has an advisory body called the Migration Advisory Committee, known in Whitehall as the MAC. This is ‘an independent, non-statutory, non-time limited, non-departmental public body that advises the government on migration issues’. (Note the nons, which reflect the body’s independence.) It is well regarded and chaired by Sir David Metcalf, Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE.

An excellent way to improve the evidence base on international students would be to commission the MAC to conduct a full review of the costs and benefits to the UK of international students. It would take a while to do properly, as the MAC tends to be rigorous, but the rather painful debates on international students have been going for a long time already and they show few signs of abating.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that those who oppose large numbers of international students coming to the UK tend to resist a MAC review, although if the MAC reported to another department it would almost certainly have been commissioned to do this long ago. We have asked MigrationWatch (via Twitter) whether they would support a MAC review along these lines but, to date, they have not responded.

UPDATE: MigrationWatch have now responded and have agreed that the MAC should consider this issue ‘providing it also evaluates the evidence on departure of non EU students’.

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