UK migration stats show student visa falls

May 24, 2013

Further education (FE) colleges and English language schools in the UK suffered sharp declines in sponsored visa students over the year to March 2013, leading to falls in the country's net migration figures, according to statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

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In the year to March 2013, the total number of visas issued for study purposes to non-EU citizens, excluding student visitors, fell to 206,814, a decline of nine per cent compared with the previous twelve months. In terms of sponsored student visa applications, there was a 10 per cent decline in the year ending March 2013, down to 207,751.

The declines in sponsored applications were most pronounced in the FE and English language sectors – both down by 46 per cent, to 29,371 students and 3,470 students respectively. Applications for independent secondary schools also declined by seven per cent to 13,798, but the falls were partly offset by a five per cent rise in applications for the university sector, climbing to 157,241.

The government, which has a manifesto pledge to reduce net migration – the measure of inward migration against outward migration – to tens of thousands, welcomed the results. Overall migration in the year to September 2012 fell to 153,000, down from 242,000 in the previous year.

Immigration Minister Mark Harper said, "The figures show that we have cut out abuse while encouraging the brightest and best migrants who will contribute to economic growth."

However, Study Group UK's Managing Director for Higher Education, James Pitman, said the rises in higher education applications were misleading. "The modest increase in university sponsored visas may give the illusion that all is well, but it simply reflects applications from non-EU students who have been in the country for years already, taking GCSEs and A-Levels in preparation for higher education study."

Pitman added that the figures in other sectors should be of real concern to universities. "Today's international FE and English language students are tomorrow's university students and drops of almost half in visa applications here is real cause for concern. Even conservative estimates suggest 40 per cent of international students arrive at universities through FE and independent pathway routes. This supply is being slowly strangled and is a catastrophe waiting to happen for UK higher education."

The drop in study visas issued in the year to March 2013 was almost entirely accounted for by two source markets: Pakistan fell 62 per cent to 14,413 students and India declined 38 per cent to 9,827. Both source countries are thought to be sensitive to changes in working rights during and after studies that were introduced in 2011. In contrast, there was a 10 per cent increase in student visas issued to Chinese nationals.

There was also an increase in the issuance of student visitor visas, up by six per cent to 69,542 in the year ending March 2013.

Despite repeated calls from education associations and parliamentary committees, the government has refused to remove students from net migration calculations. Sarah Mulley, Associate Director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said falling student numbers would not help the government meet targets in the long run. "Because most students stay in the UK only for a short time, reduced immigration now will mean reduced emigration in the future, which by 2015 could partially reverse the falls in net migration we are seeing now."

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