International student migration – ONS update

The ONS published a welcome note yesterday updating the progress being made with statistics on the migration patterns of international students coming to the UK. It gave a fairly upbeat impression but really only laid bare how little we as a nation know about these students. New statistics are needed – and requiring all students to get a National Insurance Number would be a good start and might even be part of the post-Brexit changes. Lets hope that the ONS and UKSA Board are in there arguing for such changes. The article also had a graphic that was misleading and below the standards that we might expect from the ONS. 

First, lets deal with the graphic, or as the ONS calls it, a “conceptual diagram”. A figure like this ought to have more numbers in it. Three sets of numbers are missing:

  • the total (How many non-EU students were there in 2015?)
  • ranges (What is the range of plausible estimates for the numbers given?)
  • the figures for EU students (to give a full picture, perhaps in a separate figure?)

The figure also ought to have bars that are proportional if numbers are to be shown. If we had a fairly drawn chart using the best central estimates the situation would look far less reassuring. As it stands it gives the strong impression that everything is pretty much OK – blue means “Data available” and red means “Data will become available”. That is a long way from the truth. Perhaps that is what the ONS means when it says it is “provided for illustrative purposes only”. Most illustrations are for illustrative purposes so one can only assume that the diagram is designed as it is to give that (misleading) impression. Lets hope that it is not being used by the ONS to mislead themselves.

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Second, the statistics themselves. The latest note (“International student migration research update: What do international students do after their studies?“) made it clear that ONS is working “with other government departments on a programme of research to better understand what international students do after their studies”. We knew that, and it is good news, but is the programme ambitious enough?

The note referred to two published papers from 2016 that described what the statistics show on international student migration and gave an update on getting better statistics. It also referred to a paper published in February 2017 on wider plans to make better use of data sources across government to improve data on international migration.

The overwhelming feeling is that we are unlikely ever to be even reasonably confident about what is happening to foreign students with current sources. Some estimates will probably improve but the gaps in sources are so large and the margins of error so great that no one who cares about these numbers is likely ever to be satisfied.

Unfortunately the ONS seems pretty happy with data at the moment. The February paper has the following chart. The green boxes mean that the ONS assesses the existing data as “robust information”. There is no need, the ONS might think, to bother to make much effort if everything is sort of OK. (There were some amber and red boxes in the emigration data table.) You don’t have to engage in much googling to find that most commentators do not concur.

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How might this change in the future?

New data based on new admin systems will be required as survey data will always be highly approximate when it comes to understanding immigrant skills, use of public services and other issues that were shown to be sensitive in the Brexit debate. There is every chance that Brexit will require new recording systems. A fairly simple suggestion might be to require students to have a National Insurance number. Currently, it seems that student status allows a non-UK national to have a NiNo (“You must have the right to work or study in the UK to get a National Insurance number”), rather than requiring one if you are to study. Just imagine the richness of data we’d have about the student population and its interplay with (legal, PAYE) work, both during and after the course of study. That’s why I hope that the ONS and UKSA Board are in there arguing for such changes to admin systems – and that they make sure that data produced by these systems is provided for their use.

Some more information about NiNo statistics can be found this DWP page.


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