Foreign students "should stay part of migration target" - MAC

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) rejected calls from universities to give overseas students the automatic right to work in the country for up to two years after completing their studies.

King's College Cambridge - photo of students and the building illustrating an article about Brexit and immigration for students
The UK government should significantly ease restrictions on international students’ right to work in the country after they graduate, the official advisory committee on immigration recommended in a report to ministers on Tuesday.

Migration Advisory Committee report rejects calls to give overseas students automatic right to work in the UK

But the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) rejected calls from universities to give overseas students the automatic right to work in the country for up to two years after completing their studies.The committee - whose recommendations are expected to play a major part when the government publishes its post-Brexit immigration policy in the New Year - also rejected repeated pleas from industry bodies, senior Conservative MPs and the Universities UK organisation for international students to be omitted from official net migration figures.Prime Minister Theresa May is sticking to her target of reducing net migration from its current level of 240,000 a year to below 100,00 but many have argued that including students in the figures only serves to deter youngsters coming to UK universities and denies companies the opportunity to hire the skilled overseas workers they desperately need.In the 2016-2017 academic year, 442,375 international students made up almost a fifth of all students at UK universities. Six per cent of the students were from the EU and 13 per cent from non-EU countries.The MAC report said: "Many of the respondents argued that students should be taken out of the government’s net migration target. None suggested a practical way that this might be done."We cannot see a reliable method. Even if a method were to be found, it would be unlikely to make much difference to the migration statistics."While the report also recommended that PhD students should enjoy an automatic right to work in the UK for 12 months after their courses, it rejected the call from Universities UK for all foreign graduates to have an automatic right to stay and work in the country for two years after completing their studies.

MAC: Foreign graduates should have preferential right to switch to the Tier 2 visa system

Instead, the committee suggested foreign graduates should automatically have a preferential right to switch from Tier 4 study visas to the Tier 2 visa system for skilled migrants for two years after graduation.Alan Manning, professor of economics at the London School of Economics who chairs the MAC, said: “International students bring clear benefits to the whole of the UK. Graduates are an important source of skilled workers for the UK economy and boost the UK’s soft power.“The UK has a strong position in the market for international students, but there are no grounds for complacency, as competition is intense. Our proposals are designed to make it easier for the sector and the government to work together to grow the number of students and for those students to move into skilled work.“We do not recommend a separate post-study work visa though our proposals on automatic leave to remain at the end of study have some of the same effect. If a longer post-study work period seems warranted, our advice could change.“One reason for not recommending a longer post-study work period is that the earnings of some graduates who remain in the UK seem surprisingly low and it is likely that those who would benefit from a longer period to find a graduate level job are not the most highly skilled.”Prof Manning also warned that higher education institutions did not trust the government to maintain its stated policy of support for continued high levels of international students in the UK and feared ministers planned to introduce a cap on numbers. The report recommended against any such cap.

Changing Europe: foreign student numbers flatline because of UK government immigration policy

Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe research group and professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, said it was not surprising that the MAC had concluded that international students benefited the wider UK economy and the public finances."Nevertheless, for the last eight years the government has pursued a policy of deliberately trying to reduce the number of international students coming to the UK; by tightening visa requirements, increasing fees, imposing new bureaucracy on universities, and, perhaps most egregiously, by expelling thousands of students falsely accused, on the flimsiest possible evidence, of cheating in English language tests," he wrote in The Independent."The result has been that student numbers have flatlined at a time when the market has been growing strongly, as the UK has lost ground to its main competitors like Australia and even, despite Trump, the US. And, as the MAC notes, Brexit poses new threats."There is some disappointment today in the university sector that the MAC does not call for students to be excluded from the migration statistics, as many have argued.  But the MAC are correct that this would be largely symbolic, extremely messy in practical terms, and would not magically solve the problem."As the MAC report strongly implies, the real issue is not the inclusion of students in the 'tens of thousands' target, but the target itself."

Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, comments on the latest news from MAC

Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said that while the report recognised the contribution international students made to life in the UK, she was "disappointed" with MAC's main recommendations."We agree that the government and the sector should continue to work together to grow the number of international students, but growth will only be possible if we have an immigration system that encourages talented international students to choose the UK," she said.“The ability to work in a skilled job for a limited period after graduation is, for many prospective international students, an important part of the overall package when deciding where to study."Universities UK called last week for a new graduate visa that would make the UK more attractive to students and would allow a wider range of employers, in all parts of the UK, to benefit from access to talented graduates from around the world. This improved post-study visa would put us on a par with what is offered by countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.“While the UK continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its net migration target, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers. This adds to the perception that they are not welcome here."

Jane Gratton, head of business environment and skills at the British Chambers of Commerce

Jane Gratton, head of business environment and skills at the British Chambers of Commerce, commented, "Business communities around the UK will be bitterly disappointed not to see support for the removal of overseas students from the immigration statistics. We have been calling for the removal of international students from the immigration figures for a long time as the vast majority go home after completing their courses.“The committee is right to recommend that it should be easier for overseas students to work here at the end of their studies. International students benefit local economies up and down the country, not only through their direct spending power, but also through their skills, languages and cultural awareness."At a time when three quarters of firms are struggling to fill job vacancies, it makes sense to attract and harness the talent of international students.“It’s time to scrap the caps and arbitrary numerical targets. It’s one thing to control migration, but quite another to use arbitrary mechanisms that deny businesses, universities and public sector employers the people they need to address immediate skills gaps.“The government should also restore a post-study work visa that allows British universities and companies to benefit from the energy of some of the people they have trained. Now more than ever, the UK should be striving to attract the brightest talent from around the world, and our future immigration policy should reflect that instead of a fixation with targets.”

Matthew Percival, head of employment at the Confederation of British Industry

Matthew Percival, head of employment at the Confederation of British Industry, said the report rightly recognised the significant economic benefits international students brought to the economy. He said their their social and cultural input also fostered a global perspective among other students, "helping businesses and society become more diverse and increasing our soft power around the globe".He added, “Making it easier to switch to work visas after their studies will help the UK to increase its market share of international students amid fierce competition.“And business agrees with the report that removing international students from the net migration target is no panacea – the target should be scrapped altogether and replaced with a system that prioritises people’s contribution.“To maintain the UK’s world-leading position as a provider of higher education – a truly great British export - it’s vital this useful evidence is reflected in a post-Brexit immigration system that balances openness with control.”For related news and features, visit our Immigration and Brexit sections.
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