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UK government plans to change how international students are counted

Last year, Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced a crackdown on international student visas, based on data that thousands had allegedly overstayed after graduating. Image via Reuters/Peter Nicholls.

The United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) plans to revamp the system used to count the number of international students coming in and out of the U.K., the independent agency announced.

Currently, the government uses data from the International Passenger Survey that monitors the number of foreign students entering and leaving the U.K. The survey has been widely criticised as unreliable, particularly so in recent months as the system was used as a basis to suggest thousands of international students had overstayed their visa upon graduation.

One criticism of the dataset was that it did not reflect the reality where most foreign students comply with their visa requirements and do not overstay – if they do stay on after graduation, they did so through legal means. A secret report by the Home Office last year also suggested that just one percent of international students overstay, but government officials have denied the existence of such a report.

In its announcement, the ONS said it will explore alternative data sources in the coming months. “We are working collaboratively with other government departments to investigate what other sources can tell us,” it said.

“This is a complex area which will require analysis of several datasets, drawing on the expertise of data providers across government.”

The proposal to overhaul the old system came amid public backlash over the British government’s plan to halve the number of international students allowed to study in the U.K., a move critics say could have negative ramifications on the nation’s higher education sector.

Speaking to The PIE News, James Pitman, Study Group’s managing director of higher education in the U.K. and Europe, called the announcement “encouraging”.

The Institute For Public Policy Research (IPPR), which previously found ONS’ data faulty and overestimating the number of international students that supposedly overstay, also welcomed the announcement.

Marley Morris, research fellow for migration, integration and communities, said: “We fully support the ONS review into the measurement of international student migration and are encouraged by their efforts to more accurately determine what students do after completing their studies.”

“Given this is such a critical statistic for migration policy, we need more clarity on the true scale of international student flows as a matter of urgency.”

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