ANALYSIS: No, Theresa May did not say there were 100,000 student visa “overstayers”
No, the Government did not say previously there were 100,000 student visa “overstayers” – it’s much worse than that.
“Students, yes; overstayers, no.” Theresa May’s message at the 2015 Conservative conference was unapologetically tough about foreign students and their apparent abuse of the visa system to remain in the UK beyond their entitlement.
But as we learn today, this great problem identified by May (and Nick Timothy, until recently her chief of staff) is not so great after all. In total 4,600, or 2.6% of the non-EEA national students whose visas expired in 2015/16, were not identified by the Home Office’s exit check data as departing in accordance with their visas. Indeed, students were found to be less likely to overstay their visas than tourists or employees.
So, why the overblown rhetoric by May (and by her junior ministers when she was at the Home Office and, indeed, other Cabinet ministers like Sajid Javid)? Surely May had some statistics – however sketchy – to back up her claims that “too many” were overstaying? Nope. It’s worse. There were none.
The closest thing was the “gap” figure produced by the Office for National Statistics (which has published a paper laying out in chastening detail its own struggles in identifying a working methodology for foreign students’ contribution to net migration) between how many non-EU students come to the UK to study in one year and how many former students emigrate out of the UK to study (which has hovered around 100,000 in some years). That has been taken by some – yes, looking at you, Vince Cable – as being some sort of official estimate of how many “overstayers” there are that has been roundly debunked by today’s Home Office stats. That is wrong because the difference includes those who obtained legal leave to remain, whether for work or further study or family reasons or anything else, as well as “overstayers”.
The ONS admits that today’s Home Office data mean that its implied net student migration figure – the “gap” – is “likely to be an overestimate”, so the putative contribution of “overstayers” to that is presumably higher than the 4,600 found today. But, as the ONS itself took to Twitter to point out, it has never produced an estimate of visa breaches by foreign students.
Rather than point out that May has been basing part of her immigration policy on nothing beyond ideology and a MigrationWatch moan about “vanishing students”, though, the Lib Dem leader Vince Cable decided to use his own source-less statistics (and I have asked, without luck, for them to be cleared up) to accuse the PM of peddling “bogus figures”. Go figure.
If today has demonstrated nothing else, it has shown how much further work is necessary before a rounded picture of the impact of foreign students becomes clear – which is what Amber Rudd has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to do. But don’t expect those who have been sceptical of the benefits of large numbers of foreign students to end their fight.
See Nick Timothy’s pivot to the question of the much larger number of foreign students who remain in the UK legally beyond their studies for a taste of the next row: