There was a flutter of excitement among the Higher Education community this morning, when the education editor of the Times tweeted that David Willetts, the Universities Minister, was about to announce that overseas students would be excluded from net migration figures, and therefore from the Prime Minister’s pledge to reduce net migration to under 100,000 by the election.
Straightaway I responded that I thought this unlikely. There is a strong policy case for taking students out of the political 'numbers game' on immigration. Net migration figures are supposed to measure 'long term migration', whereas most overseas students return home fairly quickly. It is increasingly clear that having students inside the target has resulted in policies which are damaging our higher education sector – a sector which is valuable for its economic contribution and export earnings, as well as the longer term cultural and 'soft power' advantages it generates for Britain. In policy terms, it would be far better to focus purely on making the student visa system more rigorous and eliminating abuse, with no incentive to reduce numbers for the sake of it.
But the political motives for continuing to include students in the figures are similarly powerful. Any reversal of this policy would doubtless be presented by sections of the media as 'another U-turn' and worse, a cynical attempt to wriggle out of an election pledge – potentially very damaging on such a high-profile and emotive issue. A second motive, less widely realised, is that excluding students would make it harder not easier for the government to hit the target (this may seem counter-intuitive, but for an explanation, see here). It would also cast doubt on ministers’ narrative that they inherited an immigration system that was 'out of control', since net migration excluding students peaked in 2007 rather than 2010.
Sure enough, when Willetts actually gave his speech, all he said was that the government 'wants to publicise disaggregated [net migration] figures so that the debate can be better informed': in other words, the ONS will now publish two series of net migration figures, one including students and one excluding them. The Home Office has confirmed that the net migration target will continue to apply to the figures that include students. More information is indeed good for debate, but it is the target rather than the figures which is driving policy and related decisions – including the recent draconian action against London Metropolitan University – and the target is not going to change. Willetts’ intervention looks like an attempt to show willing to his stakeholders, within the very limited room for manoeuvre he is granted by the Home Office and No10.
Willetts and his department could argue that even if this doesn’t amount to real policy change now, it could prepare the way for change in the future: a better-informed debate could over time help change the views of voters and opinion-formers. We must hope this is what happens, for the sake of our Higher Education sector, and its contribution to growth. Echoing Vince Cable earlier this week, Willetts noted that 'there are few sectors of our economy with the capacity to grow and generate export earnings as great as higher education', and that 'education exports are already worth around £14 billion, and could rise to around £20 billion in 2020 and nearly £27 billion in 2025, representing an annual growth rate of approximately five per cent.'
But this is growth potential – it is not guaranteed. If Britain loses its competitive position in the international higher education market, it could find it hard to win it back. A shift in policy is also urgently needed by some individual institutions, who are struggling anyway with funding pressures from government cuts (some of which are necessary or inevitable), for whom overseas students could be a financial lifeline. These concerns are presumably what lay behind the only concrete policy announcements Willetts actually made in this area today: a £2 million fund to help legitimate overseas students at London Met find somewhere to continue their studies – previously the government had admitted that the decision was unfair on these students, but seemed to think that a price worth paying – and a communications campaign to persuade potential students overseas that, whatever they might see or hear about London Met and other similar stories, Britain does want them to come after all. These are sensible attempts at damage limitation, but with the overall policy framework continuing to be driven by the net migration target, we must all hope they are not too little, too late.
Matt Cavanagh is a visiting fellow at IPPR.