Official figures on the number of international students staying in the UK once their courses end are “potentially misleading” and should be downgraded, according to the government’s statistics watchdog.
The Office for Statistics Regulation has said while the number of students arriving is generally accepted to be higher than those leaving, the “scale” of emigration reported by the Office for National Statistics should be treated with caution.
ONS figures over recent years have suggested that around 90,000 former international students a year have remained in the UK.
The OSR report said that while the ONS's migration statistics quarterly report “has a more complete and coherent picture” of former student migration, the statistics should be recognised as experimental.
Ed Humpherson, the OSR’s director general said: “I am concerned that the former-student emigration estimate does not bear the weight that is put on it in public debate...
“This estimate... creates doubts by not providing a complete and coherent picture of former-student emigration, as these figures alone do not provide information on all the different outcomes for international students.”
Sarah Stevens, head of policy for the Russell Group, which represents the UK’s top universities, said: “International students make an enormous contribution to the UK and we need an immigration system that lets universities recruit the brightest and best to come and study here.”
“If we are asking policy-makers to take decisions based on dubious figures it is hard to see how we can end up with a system of student immigration that delivers for the UK.
“The introduction of exit checks could help ensure that we are getting more accurate numbers, but this suggests that we still have a long way to go.”
It comes amid Cabinet wrangling over whether international students who come to the UK should be included in official net migration figures.
Boris Johnson and Liam Fox are among those to oppose registering them in the statistics, while Philip Hammond said the recording system should reflect “public perception”.
Downing Street on the other hand has ruled out a change in the way they are recorded, while Amber Rudd has suggested she wants to reduce the number of foreign students as part of efforts to cut immigration.