UK public don't see students as migrants

27, August, 2014

UK voters are “baffled” that international students are considered as migrants by the government and would oppose policy measures that are likely to reduce the number of students coming to the country, according to the results of an opinion poll commissioned by Universities UK.

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International Students and the UK immigration debate was commissioned by Universities UK, the body representing the country’s higher education institutions, in partnership with British Future, an independent thinktank, and is based on a nationally representative survey of 2,111 people by polling and market research company ICM as well as six workshops held across the country.

Only 22 per cent of people polled thought that international students should be considered as immigrants, and the report’s authors said many participants were puzzled to find that the government counts them in migration statistics. “The most common reaction is surprise and even bafflement that international students are classified as immigrants at all,” said the report.

“While many people may have negative feelings towards some forms of immigration, they view international students, on the whole, in a very positive light – as people who contribute economically, intellectually and culturally to Britain.”

Furthermore, 59 per cent of respondents said the government should not reduce the number of international students, even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall, compared with only 22 per cent saying international student numbers should be reduced. An even higher proportion of Conservative voters– 66 per cent – said international student numbers should not be reduced.

The report also found that people were largely supportive of post-study work rights for international students: three quarters said students should be able to remain for some time at least, while 41 per cent said students should remain as long as they have work. The poll also found that 60 per cent believe students bring money into the economy, and 61 per cent agree that British universities would have less funding without the higher fees international students bring.

Mark Field MP, Chairman of the Conservatives for Managed Migration group, said in the report’s foreword that international students are “popular migrants”, and argued that the report showed that the public is quite capable of making a distinctions between different types of immigrants “and in fact has a pragmatic and nuanced view about how to select the kinds of migration that best reflect our nation’s interests and values”.

Professor Christopher Snowden, President of Universities UK, said, “The poll is clear that the public sees international students as valuable, temporary visitors, not immigrants. It is also clear therefore that the current one-size-fits-all approach to immigration does not work and must be changed.” He added that current policy had created a perception internationally that the UK is not welcoming, and that competitor countries were seeing rises in international student numbers at a time when the UK’s numbers have declined over the last two years.

Following publication of the report, a number of high-profile politicians have backed the findings and called on the government to remove international students from migration statistics. These include Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Lord Heseltine, a former Deputy Prime Minister and a senior figure within the Conservative party, who described international students on the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme as “a great asset financially and educationally” as well as “great ambassadors” for the UK.

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