Can’t count, won’t count – should be made to count


Over the weekend the BBC reported that the influential Public Administration Committee claimed data used by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for estimating who enters and leaves the country were a best guess and not fit for purpose as a means of calculating net migration figures upon which major policy commitments are based. Interested observers already know that the Migration Advisory Committee also think that the ONS method is likely to significantly over-state net migration and particularly the impact of international students attending courses in the UK.

To recap, net migration is calculated as the total number of people entering the United Kingdom for a year or longer minus those who leave the country. The Coalition Government in the United Kingdom is committed to reducing the net migration number from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. At present this is calculated based on something called the International Passenger Survey – which is a random sample of up to 5000 people each year asking them why they are entering or leaving the country.  From that the Office of National Statistics extrapolates the net migration number. A deeply flawed and unreliable mechanism, given the millions of entries and exits to the UK each year.

As far back as March 2011, the Home Affairs Committee published its report on the student visa system in the UK. It received evidence from across the sector  including UKCISA, Universities UK and (more modestly ourselves) and beyond, pointing out the shortcomings of the International Passenger Survey and urging the Government to explore more statistically robust methods of collecting data which in turn inform major policy decisions.

The report concluded:

“Any policy which is based on flawed data has the potential to create significant unintended consequences. We are broadly supportive of the Government’s policy of reducing immigration, but we believe that policy decisions ought to be based on the best possible information. We therefore urge the Government, as a matter of priority, to investigate whether a more reliable system of data collection than the International Passenger Survey can be used upon which to base immigration policy”

In their excellent  submission to the committee, the University of East Anglia noted:

“The Consultation claims that, in 2009, the student route accounted for approximately 139,000 of a total net (non-EU) migration of 184,000. This is largely based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS) which surveys 0.2% of travellers, and is therefore subject to significant sampling errors as a consequence.”

If bringing net migration to the tens of thousands remains a policy imperative for this government, it would make sense to know who comes in and who leaves the country. International students, one of the very few categories over which the Government has control, should not become collateral damage in the achievement of a wider policy objective, especially when the we don’t even know who is coming in and out of the country.

We do hope that this latest report form the Public Administration Committee will once again refocus the debate on the development of a more accurate migration assessment mechanism.

And while they’re on it, would it be too much to hope that the other major recommendation from the sector, that students are excluded altogether from net migration statistics is revisited? Students are not migrants in the sense that any normal person understands the term. As the Department of Business Innovation and Skills reported this morning, education is an export industry worth £17.5bn per year and one where students are wealth creators rather than resource-consumers.

Tim O'Brien

Author: Tim O'Brien

Tim is Vice President, Global Partner Development, INTO University Partnerships

One thought on “Can’t count, won’t count – should be made to count

  1. …Still find it unbelievable that the government can include students within net migration measures yet have no idea how many people have entered and/or current live in the UK! Students bring in billions a year to the UK economy…At a time of such economic uncertainty, I find it incredible that the government can continue with such ludicrous policies!

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