Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Thoughts on today’s (woefully-disappointing) Migration Advisory Committee report on international students.

  • 11 September 2018
  1. They have very odd things to say about including students in a net migration target. In fact, they are trying to ride two horses at the same time. First, they say there is no problem with including students in the target because most students leave the UK after their studies (which is true). Then, elsewhere, they say the Government and educational institutions should continue seeking to increase the number of international students. But, if you have a net target and you expand the number of arrivals now while the (already high) proportion of departures from the lower number of old arrivals stays the same, then the net number of migrants goes up because more people are arriving than leaving. That is the key reason why the sector has disliked students being in the Government’s target: it hinders growth because it suggests the Government is not truly committed to an increase in international student numbers and it does so at the very moment when our key competitors are extending their market share fast. It is almost unbelievable that the MAC have chosen to ignore this. The one thing everyone knows about recent Home Office migration policy is that is has been based on the concept of a ‘hostile environment’, which – oddly – is a term that does not seem to be mentioned once in the MAC report.
  2. The MAC is accountable only to the Home Office. Perhaps the single biggest reason why the UK is so out-of-kilter with our key competitors on international students is that we choose to give 100% policy responsibility on student migration to our Home Office. Our work on other countries’ higher education systems shows this is not what happens elsewhere: they tend to share policy responsibility across a range of government departments that focus on trade, education, foreign relations and so on as well as whichever department looks after home affairs. Imagine how absurd it would be if we were to give the Home Office sole policy responsibility over any other major UK export: ‘Yes, I know you want to export more of your UK-built Minis across the world, but the Home Secretary has unilaterally decided you can’t. Instead, we are going to include your Minis in a target we have adopted to reduce our highest-earning exports.’
  3. Many of us have had misplaced faith in the MAC as a body. Throughout their work, I have repeatedly said the MAC are likely to follow the evidence, which is unusually one-sided and positive on the issue of international students. They bring money, diversity and soft power to the UK. But it seems if you are a Committee that is appointed by the Home Office, answerable to the Home Office and designed primarily to look at labour market economics rather than education, you start and finish in a particular place. If you doubt this, take a look at the recruitment processes for the MAC: when they recently added to their membership, the appointment panel was chaired by the Director of Immigration and Border Policy!
  4. The process has been sub-optimal, to put it kindly. In conjunction with Kaplan International Pathways and London Economics, HEPI produced the most detailed report we have ever published in January of this year. It looked at the net benefits to the UK of hosting international students, taking a conservative calculation of the benefits and an expansive definition of the costs, and included data for every parliamentary constituency. We believe it was the most detailed single submission to the MAC review, it has featured heavily in the media and it was referred to in many other organisations’ submissions. We sent it to the MAC, with the offer of a meeting to discuss the results. They didn’t even bother to send a reply; indeed, I am not sure they even acknowledged it. Although the MAC have published over 1,600 pages of evidence received, they have not published our 72-page report, opting instead to reprint our one-and-a-bit page covering letter instead. Also note that, despite the usual tight controls on issuing such sensitive documents as today’s report, parts of the document were leaked to the two newspapers most likely to offer a sympathetic ear.
  5. The battle will go on. Given the clear problems with the process and the conclusions in today’s report, there is zero chance of the higher education sector, parliamentarians and the wider public changing their mind and suddenly deciding that the international students who bring added vitality to our towns and cities are a bad thing. It is true that educational organisations should, perhaps, have offered more constructive solutions to some concerns in the past, but the recent Universities UK proposal on post-study work visas shows this is now happening. Moreover, if our two main political parties are genuinely committed to the UK remaining an open, outward-looking, international and successful country after Brexit, what better way to do that than to make it clear we want to give people the chance to come and study at our educational institutions of all types? In the context of Brexit, just think how powerful this anecdote from a different official report is. They are the words of a former Chinese PhD student who studied in the UK:

[You] have a friend down in China. [Cambridge UK is] my second hometown, always. When I have a negotiation with Bank of England, I always go kind of emotionally bonded. I feel like there’s a bridge between China and UK at my job in the Central Bank. When the Bank of England or other UK people visit me in my office or duty, I will [treat them] like family, quite like a kind of large family, like an old friend. Emotionally bonded.


  1. Steven West says:

    The fact is that we live in a very confused and muddled political landscape. We are attempting to signal to the world that we are ‘open for business’ and ‘want to attract talent to the UK to study’. So far so good. Then we hit the reality of trying to deliver that. Our messages and actions become confused and inconsistent. Prospective students and their families hit significant barriers and start to question whether they would be welcome. This of course is wonderful news for our competitors across the globe. Their message is very clear. We want to attract the best in the world to study at our colleges and universities. We value their contributions and we hope that they will consider adding to the countries diversity, vibrancy and talent as students and potentially as graduates. Every international graduate becomes a global ambassador for the country they have studied in.

    Why do we find this so politically difficult when other countries have found a way through? I hope we get our our thinking straight quickly!

  2. patrick watson says:

    Its politically difficult because Theresa May, now Prime Minister had such a hostile attitude as Home Secretary to international students, and cultivated a hostile attitude to migration more generally. No HE minister or Business Secretary has been able to shift her mind set. The Indian government has made it clear that it wants better treatment for its students, who are currently voting with their feet, before it can agree any post Brexit Trade Agreement . So the broader economic consequences of this should be added to the research and soft power consequences that have been listed. We are on the cusp of losing our position as the second most attractive destination for international students. after the US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *