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ANALYSIS Is Theresa May telling the truth on foreign students? Well, it's complicated

4 min read

Theresa May today claimed credit - sort of - for figures which showed one of her justifications for clamping down on international students was rubbish. 

The Prime Minister was challenged over her crackdown on foreign students – a week after it emerged that them overstaying their visas (one of the key justifications for the policy) really wasn't much of a problem.

When confronted with the Home Office’s exit check statistics - which showed 97.4% of non-EEA students left in accordance with their visas - May deployed a double-defence: the ONS data were saying something different (which flirts with being untrue without quite getting there), and that her policies have helped stop overstayers being a problem (which is unprovable).

Here’s what she said when asked by Sky News whether the Home Office had been exaggerating the problem:

“No, the figures that we’ve looked at in the past are the ONS figures.

“But what’s clear is that it’s action that we have taken as a government that has had an impact on students. We now see more students actually leaving the United Kingdom after they’ve completed their degree; previously we saw significant numbers staying.

“We have taken action to root out abuse in the system and that’s why we see greater numbers of students actually complying with our regulations.”


The key line is the first:

“No, the figures that we’ve looked at in the past are the ONS figures.”

This is vague enough to be true – or true-ish. It is also true that those ONS figures were NOT FOR OVERSTAYERS and if the Home Office was using them as such they had no idea what they were doing. The ONS published a figure on the “gap” in any given year between how many non-EEA citizens were coming to the UK to study and how many non-EEA citizens who originally came to the UK to study left. Leaving aside that the ONS thinks that number is probably wrong and should be treated with caution, even if it was accurate that is NOT the same as how many overstayers there were because the putative “net migration of students” would be affected by those who stayed in the UK legally – whether for further study, work or family reasons.

Two numbers to keep in mind: the ONS “gap” figure approached 100,000 in some years; the Home Office’s exit checks put the number of overstayers at fewer than 5,000. The question is how much of that “gap” figure the Home Office was attributing to overstayers, a number that has never been published.

The attention given to the problem under May suggests it was well above the 5,000 suggested by the exit checks. George Osborne’s recent Evening Standard editorial suggested that May had failed to see the difference at all (so was assuming 100% of the “gap” was due to illegal, rather than authorised, remainers).

The PM’s own previous use quite careful of that “gap” number suggests Osborne is wrong. In the House of Commons in January 2015, the then-Home Secretary said:

“I am pleased to say that visa applications from university students rose by 2% in the year ending September 2014, with an increase of 4% for the Russell Group universities. We also need to recognise that the latest survey showed that in one year 121,000 students came in from overseas and only 50,000 left.”

(NB She doesn’t say that they were overstaying their visas, but arguably left people to draw the conclusion that they had remained in the country beyond their leave.)


So, we know that May did not have any independent public estimate of “overstayers” when she was talking about “too many” remaining beyond their visas. We also know that the Home Office’s internal figures were likely to be wrong.

How, then, can she claim that there are now “greater numbers of students actually complying with our regulations”?

She can’t.

The Home Office exit checks are the first to be published, so there are not comparable data for the previous years. She is right that the ONS “gap” figure can be compared but, for the reasons above, we don’t know how many overstayers that includes and whether that has gone up or down.

While suggestions that May had been running around yelling that there were 100,000 seem to be spurious, it is pretty evident that the Home Office had overestimated – though we don’t know by how much – the number of overstayers.

The one thing – and pretty much the only thing – that the whole episode makes clear is that the evidence on which policy was being based was completely inadequate. If that changes as a result of the new Home Office figures and the new review from the Migration Advisory Committee, it should be welcomed on all sides. 

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