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Are International Students Immigrants? The Debate Explained

Want to understand the debate over international students and immigration numbers? Let's take a closer look at the UK-and why Prime Minister Theresa May is in a growing minority of those who want to include international student numbers in immigration statistics.

Feb 2, 2018
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Are International Students Immigrants? The Debate Explained

Since Theresa May’s days as UK’s Home Secretary, she has supported counting international students as immigrants and has staunchly opposed legislation for them to be excluded from official immigration numbers.


Let’s take a closer look at the hotly contested debate in the UK, some impending legislation, and what it means for international students in the UK.

Are international students immigrants in the UK?

Prime Minister Theresa May wants to keep international students in the net immigration figures, but other politicians, including those from her party, think students are a different group and should not be counted as immigrants.

In fact, several high-profile conservatives are pressuring May to omit the international student numbers in net immigration reports, especially those who see the value in welcoming international students.

Those who want to see international students counted as a different group as immigration is defined want essentially to raise the “cap” on the number of immigrants the UK allows in.

By including international students in the immigration numbers, May effectively lowers the overall number of non-student immigrants who can come to the UK.

What is the definition of immigrant?

That definition has political weight.

Typically, an immigrant is a person who leaves their country to settle in another country, permanently.

The question of permanence is complicated—for some, it means forever. For others, forever can start at different times.

How long does a person have to be in a new country—and for what purpose—before they are considered immigrants? These questions are at the crux of the debate.

Why does Theresa May want to keep the rule as is?

Especially after Brexit, May wants to keep the immigration numbers low. By defining international students as immigrants, May can keep other immigration numbers at a minimum.

Fellow Conservative Boris Johnson even opposes her idea because he believes that it’s harmful to the university sector and creates a perceived hostile environment for international students.

Conservatives are correct in the international perception of the UK as a hostile environment—international student numbers have decreased.

Conservatives also see the policy as “unhelpful” to Brian’s attempts to establish strong trade ties outside the EU.

For Prime Minister May—a former Home Secretary—a tough immigration policy was a cornerstone of the Brexit referendum—and one she hopes stays.

In a recent article in , Liberal Democrat leader Vincent Cable said, “For years, Theresa May has stubbornly refused to accept that international students are no immigrants, while the Home Office has wildly exaggerated the number of those who overstay. This absurd policy has fueled concerns over immigration numbers and done serious damage to our universities.” He added, “It’s about time the government dropped this completely self-harming approach.”

Why do some people think the system should change?

Many find the policy to be unwelcoming toward the world. In light of Brexit, the UK wants to ensure that the outside world has the right perception of the country.

New evidence suggests that 97 percent of international students leave the UK after they graduate, lowering overall immigration numbers.

In an August 2017 article in , deputy political editor Steven Swinford reported that new exit checks at the borders revealed that there are fewer immigrants in the country than previously thought.

Official immigration statistics before those exit checks suggested that tens of thousands of international students remained illegally in the UK after their studies.

In an August 2017 article in Tim Bradshaw, acting director of the Russell Group said, “This exit check data confirms that in addition to helping create a diverse learning environment and making a big economic impact, an overwhelming majority of international student comply fully with the terms of their visas.” He added, “We have always been clear that international students are good for universities and good for the UK. We look forward to making this positive case to the MAC (Migration Advisory Committee.)”

The on the UK economy cannot be understated.

A new report from shows that international students from countries like India add over $30 billion to the UK economy annually—a benefit to the country that exceeds ten times its cost.

The hope? The removal of international student numbers from the overall immigration figures.

Learn more about studying in the UK.