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Theresa May attacked as ONS finds 'no evidence' of problem with foreign students overstaying

3 min read

Theresa May has come under fire after it emerged that her complaints about foreign students overstaying their visas applied to just a tiny proportion of arrivals. 

Home Office figures published today suggested that 97.4% of non-EU citizens who came to the UK to study actually left in compliance with their visa requirements.

That meant that fewer than 5,000 remained in the country longer than they were supposed to.

A previous estimate from pressure group MigrationWatch had claimed the number of “vanishing students” could be as high as 100,000, while Mrs May has previously complained that “too many” remain in the UK.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published a commentary on its handling of student migration figures on the back of the new statistics, which are based on exit checks at departure points.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has also commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to launch a wider inquiry into the contribution of foreign students to Britain.

“The work of the statisticians across government suggests that recent cohorts of non-EU students are to a very large extent compliant with their visas in terms of departing or staying legally via extensions of leave,” said Iain Bell, the ONS deputy national statistician for population and public policy.

“This work crucially demonstrates two things: that many people do not simply immigrate for study and leave afterwards; their lives are more complex – some people arrive on a work visa and legitimately change to a study visa and vice versa; [and] there is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay.”


Today’s stats call into question one of the central justifications deployed by the Prime Minister for clamping down on student migration.

Mrs May – who has backed including foreign students in the net migration statistics despite long-running criticism from many Cabinet ministers – has frequently argued that students overstay their visas to justify her stance.

In 2015, the then-Home Secretary told the Conservative conference “too many of them [students] are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out”.

She added: “I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced. Students, yes; overstayers, no.”

Amber Rudd, Mrs May’s successor at the Home Office, said last year that the Government’s intention was to “bring down the numbers” of foreign students coming to Britain. 

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott hit out at the Government’s policy on foreign students.

“Her [Theresa May’s] long-running campaign to malign international students is based on fantasy, with no evidence of a major issue with students overstaying,” she said.

"Some in government appear to be waking up to the idea that overseas students make a valuable contribution to our country and have belatedly asked the Migration Advisory Committee to gather evidence. 

“Labour will offer fair rules and reasonable management of migration; prioritising jobs, growth and prosperity, not bogus net migration targets.”


James McGrory, the executive director of pro-EU group Open Britain, said: “The Prime Minister has spent years, in Downing Street and in the Home Office, railing against foreign students overstaying their visas, which was used this to justify crackdowns on foreign students, despite their importance to our economy.

“But now it emerges that the number of over stayers is just a fraction of the numbers the Government previously thought. They have been using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“The Government’s focus now should be to make Britain as welcoming as possible to foreign students. Ministers should start by taking them out of the immigration figures entirely.”

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