Foreign students and their dependents could face curbs as net migration hits half a million

Migration to the UK reaches record high
Migration to the UK reaches record high

Net migration has hit a record high of more than half a million, partly fuelled by a seven-fold increase in foreign students bringing in their relatives.

Overall migration trebled from 173,000 last year to a post-War high of 504,000, well over the pre-Brexit record of 331,000 in 2015, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The increase in net migration - the number entering minus those leaving - stemmed from a surge in foreign nationals seeking to live, study and work in the UK with the number of visas granted rising to a record 1.34 million in the year to September, according to Home Office data.

The figures will pile pressure on the Government over its election manifesto pledge to bring down net migration, a promise repeated by Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister and Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, who told the Tory conference her ambition was to reduce it below 100,000.

On Thursday night, Downing Street signalled a clamp down on foreign students with restrictions on the number of relatives they can bring and curbs on studying “low quality” degrees to reduce net migration.

It was also reported that foreign students could be barred from the UK unless they secure a place at an elite university.

Downing Street also cited “unprecedented” and “unique” reasons for the migration increase with the 186,000 visas for Ukrainians, Afghans and Hong Kongers.

Home Office figures showed overseas students jumped 77 per cent to a high of 476,389. A fifth of them were granted visas to bring in a record 116,000 family members.

This represented a seven-fold increase on the 16,047 dependents granted visas in 2019, when only six per cent of overseas students brought their partners or children to the UK.

Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering and that does include looking at the issue of student dependents, and low-quality degrees.”

Nigerians brought in as many dependents as there were students, with 51,648 relatives to 50,980 students. Libyans brought in more dependents than students, with 467 relatives to 305 students. Other nations with at least one relative for every two students were Sri Lanka, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Iran.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said the increase should be investigated because of the risk visas may be used as a “means of entering a country where it might otherwise be difficult”.

Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said it could be a result of expanding student numbers drawing in countries where people traditionally bring more dependents such as Nigeria and India.

India has become the biggest source of foreign students in UK universities, overtaking China, whose students bring hardly any dependents. The 127,814 Indian students, by contrast, brought in 33,239 relatives.

“The Treasury would say these are graduates contributing to the economy but many of them are not doing particularly good degrees,” said a source. “The big increase we have seen in foreign students is not at Russell Group universities. It is not just students but they are also bringing their dependents.”

Other options could include a clamp down on students exploiting the two-year graduate visas to remain in the UK doing low-skilled work and increasing the salary threshold for skilled workers, which has not been uprated in line with inflation.

Mrs Braverman said the Government remained committed to reducing migration “over time,” acknowledging the current level “has put pressure on accommodation and housing supply, health, education and other public services”.

“We must ensure we have a sustainable, balanced and controlled approach which is why we continue to keep our immigration policies under review,” she said.

“My priority remains tackling the rise in dangerous and illegal crossings and stopping the abuse of our system. It is vital we restore public confidence and take back control of our borders.”

Migration is high but UK job vacancies are still at 1.2m

by Charles Hymas, Home Affairs Editor, and Ben Butcher, Data Journalist

The number of people coming to the UK to live, work and study has hit a record high of nearly 1.35 million - yet there are still 1.2 million job vacancies in Britain today.

Home Office data on Thursday showed that the overall number of work, study, humanitarian and other visas issued for the year ending September 2022 was 1,342,991 - up 62 per cent in just a year.

Net migration - the number coming to the UK minus those leaving - was also at a post-War record of 504,000, 170,000 more than the previous high of 331,000 in 2015, despite manifesto pledges by the Government to bring the headline figure down.

One of the arguments for immigration has been to boost growth and plug staff shortages but work visas only account for a third of those granted - and a portion of them are not necessarily in the areas of the economy where there are the most acute skills gaps.

Instead, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS), authors of the net migration figures, testify, immigration has been subject to a set of “unique” factors that have created a system ostensibly more liberal than that which existed before Brexit and one which has failed to plug a myriad of skills gaps.

The most obvious illustrations are the “legal but safe” humanitarian routes that have been opened because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and threats to freedom in Hong Kong.

This saw 89,000 Ukrainians, 76,000 Hong Kongers and 21,000 Afghans come to the UK in the year to June 2022, reaffirming the country’s tradition of offering refuge to those fleeing conflict, violence and threats to human rights.

It means visas other than work accounted for around a quarter of all those granted. Most of the Ukrainians who came were women and children, with around half of the adults having found jobs by the summer, according to survey data, many in low-paid jobs in the hospitality industry.

Students account for biggest proportion

By far the largest portion - nearly half - of the 1.4 million granted visas comprise students who also brought over their partners and children in record numbers.

A new high of 476,389 overseas students were granted visas in the year to September 2022, up 77 per cent on 2019, with a fifth of them bringing 116,000 partners or children with them. That gives a total student visa count with dependents of nearly 600,000.

That figure is no accident but a deliberate policy by Boris Johnson’s government which committed in February 2021 to “increase the number of international students hosted in the UK to 600,000 by 2030” because of the potential economic and soft power benefits.

Mr Johnson also relaxed the rules for students allowing them to work for up to two years after graduation, who accounted for 71,300 visas including 11,300 dependents in the past year.

This has proved an attraction for students from a wider range of countries, with the number from India trebling to 127,731 since 2019 to overtake China for the first time as the biggest overseas nationality in UK universities.

Overseas students are allowed to work, up to 20 hours a week during term time, and unlimited time during holidays but Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said: “A lot of foreign students are quite wealthy having been able to afford the fees so many tend not to work.”

The dramatic increase in foreign students - up 77 per cent since 2019 - has also been fuelled by undergraduates returning to their courses in the UK after studying remotely overseas during the pandemic.

Work visas increase

The number of work visas have increased by 82 per cent to 248,919, largely fuelled by non-EU migrants seeking employment in the UK rather than EU citizens.

The implementation of a points-based immigration system has opened up half of all jobs in the UK to foreign workers, by lowering salary and skill thresholds for migrants. Previously, employers also had to prove a British worker could not be recruited to fill a vacancy before looking abroad.

The number of professions that qualify for skilled visas has been significantly expanded to include jobs such as chef, bricklayer, electrician, welder, health and care worker, while the Government also removed caps on most visa routes.

The influx has, however, failed to solve skills shortages. “The people who are coming in are working in different jobs to the ones that EU citizens used to do,” said Ms Sumption. “We have the unusual situation where there are shortages in low wage positions where employers previously relied on EU citizens.

“Despite the fact that there is relatively high immigration overall on average, non-EU citizens do slightly different jobs and are more skilled. They go for more professional occupations and we have a lot of people coming into the health sector. Those typically were not the jobs left vacant after the reduction in EU net migration.”

The biggest groups of foreign workers are from India, Nigeria and the Philippines, who traditionally have gravitated to health and care. Doctors, nurses and care workers make up 55 per cent of skilled work visas this year.

This has meant there are still acute shortages in areas dominated by east Europeans such as food processing, construction, retail, hospitality and cleaning despite a near doubling in work visas.

Action to curb number of students bringing dependents

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, have previously said industry cannot rely on cheap foreign labour but must train domestic workers to plug the gaps and expand the use of automation and technology.

The figures will also pile further pressure on the two ministers to introduce fresh measures following the Prime Minister’s pledge to cut net migration, a key Conservative Party manifesto commitment at the last election.

Downing Street hinted on Thursday that there could be action to curb the number of students bringing in dependents and those studying “low-quality” degrees.

However, Mr Sunak has made clear that his priority is to tackle illegal immigration, where the figures are stark, not only with a record 42,000 migrants having crossed the Channel to reach the UK in small boats but also the crisis in asylum.

Home Office figures on Thursday showed asylum applications for the year ending September 2022 were at a two-decade high of 72,027, double the number in pre-pandemic 2019. The backlog has also hit a record high with 148,533 now waiting for asylum decisions. Of these, 97,717 have been waiting more than six months.

On Thursday, No 10 maintained the record highs in legal migration were “unique,” reflecting unprecedented global events like the Ukraine war. Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said he remained committed to reducing net migration though had not put a “specific date on that”.

Experts agree that they are exceptional - and will naturally reduce although it may take up to five years. “These unusually high levels of net migration result from a unique set of circumstances following the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis,” said Ms Sumption.

“We cannot assume they represent a ‘new normal’, and it would be rash to take major policy decisions based only on these numbers. Some of the most important contributors to non-EU immigration are not expected to continue indefinitely, such as the arrival of Ukrainians.”