By Angela Harrison
The government has said it wants to develop a new way of measuring student migration in and out of the UK.
Universities have been campaigning for students to be taken off immigration totals.
They fear the overseas students they rely on for income will be put off coming to the UK.
The coalition has pledged to cut immigration – but most incomers are in the UK on student visas.
Universities Minister David Willetts told university leaders meeting in Keele that the Office for National Statistics was working on ways to “better count students in immigration flows”.
This is understood to mean that the government will have more detail on the numbers of overseas students leaving the UK – so a more accurate tally can be kept.
At the moment, the government only has an estimate of the number of overseas students leaving Britain.
It says students are not being taken out of the immigration totals – but that a new way of presenting information on them will inform the debate.
Mr Willetts also announced that the government will offer financial help to legitimate overseas students who are in danger of being deported after a London university lost the right to recruit overseas students from outside the European Union.
London Metropolitan University failed to make proper checks on overseas students, government agencies said, although that is disputed by the university which is mounting a legal challenge.
Mr Willetts said a £2million fund was being set up.
“This will provide certainty to London Met students at what is a stressful and unsettling time,” he said.
The government has pledged to cut annual net migration – the difference between numbers of people arriving and leaving – to “tens of thousands”, but the latest figures put that total at 216,000 and most people who come to Britain from outside the European Union come on student visas.
The Home Office said recently that there had been a big drop in new student visas. Some university vice-chancellors and lecturers are worried that a message was going out that Britain was not open to overseas students.
University vice-chancellors wrote to the government recently asking for students to be excluded from the migration statistics.
Mr Willetts was speaking to university leaders at a conference of University UK.
He told them: “Without international students, we would not only be poorer economically – we would also be more boring, more insular, and more ignorant of the wider world.
“That is why transparency in the immigration statistics is vital. We therefore want to publicise disaggregated figures so that the debate can be better informed. The ONS is planning improvements in its methodology so that in future it will be possible to better identify students in the emigration flows.”
Universities UK has welcomed the announcement.
Professor Eric Thomas, the group’s president, said: “This is good news and a step in the right direction. It will help make a clearer distinction between temporary and permanent migrants and brings us into line with the way our major competitors report this information.
“Universities UK would like the government to go further and remove students from net migration targets, but today’s announcement will make it possible to see what contribution students are making to any future reductions
Lecturers represented by the UCU union described the announcement as a “fudge”.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “It appears the government is finally recognising the damage its student visa policy, coupled with threatening to deport thousands of fee-paying overseas students, is doing to our international reputation.
“However, today’s fudge will not solve that problem. Simply providing a mechanism to count overseas students does not remove them from net migration figures, as we, the BIS select committee, NUS and UUK are demanding.”
The government is concerned that the system of student visas is being abused by people with no intention of studying in Britain and has pledged to clamp down on those and the “bogus colleges” through which they obtain visas.
Since 2009, some 500 colleges have lost their licences to bring in foreign non-EU students, some of these because they chose not to apply to become part of a new sytem of monitoring who is being brought into the UK.
During 2011, the UK Border Agency revoked the licences of 51 colleges after investigations into suspected immigration scams.
As immigration minister, Conservative MP Damien Green rejected calls from Britain’s universities to stop counting foreign students as immigrants, saying there would be no “fiddling” of the figures.
In the minsterial reshuffle, he became policing minister.
Chairman of Migration Watch UK Sir Andrew Green said: “We welcome improvements to the migration statistics that will provide an estimate of students’ contribution to overall net migration. Better information is vital for a more informed debate.
“It is important, however, that students remain in the government’s net migration target. If they stay on they add to our population growth like anyone else.”
BBC © 2012