One size fits all? An analysis of the international student’s journey through the UK higher education system

Report page The Commission on International Student Destinations was established in 2013, following the Office for National Statistics’ earlier announcement that migration figures were to be disaggregated with student inflow and outflow reported separately.

The aim of the commission is to enhance understanding of the journeys that international (non-EEA) students at UK higher education institutions (HEIs) take. This includes consideration of their activities pre-enrolment and post-graduation. Advice to the commission was provided by representatives from Universities UK (UUK), the Home Office, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), vice-chancellors and HEI representatives with a responsibility for international students within their own institution.

The commission’s remit originally focused on the evidence base surrounding numbers of international higher education students departing from the UK within a given year, including the International Passenger Survey (IPS). In doing so, this could enhance the crosschecking of student inflows and outflows. However, its remit was widened to examine and evaluate the available evidence on international students’ wider migration patterns; their ‘journey through the UK education system’.

The commission has not considered in detail statistics relating to students other than those in higher education.

Evidence and data relating to migration into and out of the UK are collated by several bodies, including government departments. Despite the emergence of new data sources and welcome improvements to existing ones, it is nonetheless clear that some key gaps remain in the evidence base around student migration. If addressed, these could greatly inform the broader debate around immigration. The limitations of immigration statistics have been well articulated in recent years, and by various groups, including parliamentary select committees , the Migration Advisory Committee and the UK Statistics Authority which, in 2013, suggested that, at that time, the official ‘estimation of emigration (including overseas students returning home…) is particularly problematic and contributes to substantial uncertainty in the net migration estimates for the UK and locally’ .

The commission met three times in total, with research taking place between meetings. As well as analysing official data releases from HESA, the Home Office and the ONS, the commission investigated what alternative sources of information might already be kept by HEIs themselves (as well as other education providers) that could assist in filling some of these gaps.

The commission noted the following:

  • International students follow a range of different pathways through the UK education system, which affects the duration of their stay.
  • Various agencies collate data on international students, but are often not referring to the same cohorts of migrants, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about their numbers.
  • There is a wider range of data available on students entering the country compared to numbers leaving, which has implications for the measurement of net migration.
  • There is little uniformity in the way higher education institutions collate information on their international entrants or alumni, although such data could enhance our understanding of student destinations after graduation.

In light of this analysis, the commission recommends that:

  1. The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills should work with those education providers not included within HESA’s records to address the data gap between HEI student numbers and others. Commission members should encourage such providers to engage with data provision in order to inform the debate about international student pathways.
  2. UUK should work with a selection of HEIs to identify the proportion of non-EU student enrolments that require a visa to come to the UK.
  3. UUK should consider repeating its 2011 analysis of HESA data into progression rates and identify trends by students’ country of domicile.
  4. The Home Office should publish its data on in-country visa extensions by previous category annually (as standard).
  5. HESA should consider developing an action plan to increase Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey response rates for non-EU students in future years, and UUK should produce case studies to analyse what a high response rate to the DLHE might reveal about non-EU student behaviour post-graduation.
  6. The IPS could helpfully include a question about former students’ level of study, in order to disaggregate those leaving the country who were in higher education versus other education providers.
  7.  A more sophisticated methodology should be established to consider the various data sources and develop an anticipated outflow figure for international higher education students subject to immigration control.
  8.  Dialogue between data groups established through this commission should be maintained, perhaps through the existing Migration Statistics User Forum, to facilitate a greater level of information sharing between organisations to allow coherent analysis and linking together of international student data.

The team


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