Durham: Do international students count as migrants?

Durham is a historic town in the North East with a transient population. Home to the prestigious Durham University the population of around 50,000 increases by an additional 17,000 students during term time, of which 17% come from abroad.

In relation to immigration policy, international students have been a well contested group. Groups like Universities UK have lobbied for a relaxation of immigration controls affecting non-EU students which they say bring £7bn into the economy and generate 137,000 jobs around the country each year. International students pay much higher fees than domestic students, subsidising tuition fees for British students and funding university courses and facilities.

But international students are classified as immigrants by the home office, who include the group in net migration figures. The net migration target measures those entering and leaving the country, and although it has never been reached aims to reduce net migration from figures in the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. This means that international student figures are also being reduced. In recent years, a number of restrictions have been enacted to cut down on the number of international students from outside the European Union (EU) coming to study at UK universities.

Stories about people attending ‘rogue’ universities, or applying for student visas in order to work illegally in the UK have caused concern for many on our citizens’ panels across the country. But in cities with large international student populations such as Aberdeen, Leicester and Cambridge we have heard positive responses to student migration. Many have praised the financial gains international students bring to their cities, while most do not recognise those who come from abroad to study in the UK as migrants at all.

In Durham, our citizens’ panel had some concerns about students. Many were frustrated about the impacts students had on housing, others irritated at the transience of the population and nightlife culture they bought to the town. But the panel did not see international students as any different from the wider student population, and most agreed that they helped to fuel the local economy. Most had not heard of the net migration target and people did not think it was helpful to include students in this tally.

The citizens’ panel in Durham, as with many across the country showed a preference for skilled migration, and felt that international students could offer a pool of willing and qualified workers. Before meeting with the citizens’ panel, we spoke to local business leaders and community figures  who voiced concerns about demographic change in the town, which they felt would be improved by more flexible immigration rules.

Following deindustrialisation, the North East has had to shake off its reputation as an area of low skills and low qualifications as the economy diversifies. Graduate retention has been key to this, and while cities like Newcastle have been seen as a success, stakeholders in Durham warned that the town is an “isolated, insulated area” that has struggled to hold on to those who train in the region. Tees valley loses more 16-25 year olds than they gain, and the region faces struggles in the future as a result of an ageing population, skills shortages and investment challenges.

Regional visa systems have been suggested by many including IPPR North who recently argued that regionally tailored migration systems could help bring skills needed into the region. But stakeholders were concerned that setting up regional visa systems across the UK would continue to draw young talent to London where wages are substantially higher. They felt that regional systems could be useful but policy makers needed to understand the difficulties of more isolated areas faced with a London-centric economy. Reintroducing systems for international students to stay on and work after their study visas expire may be one solution to the demographic problems faced by the North East.

Further, stakeholders across the country asked that student migration accounts for all universities, not just elite institutions such as Durham. Across the UK, the National Conversation has heard frustration from universities who feel they are losing out to better known institutions out as a result of increasing restrictions. A differentiation between Oxbridge and redbrick bodies from ‘home’ universities could create more acute problems in areas like Teesside where the contribution of international students is more obvious and necessary than in wealthier places like Manchester or Cambridge.

The National Conversation will continue to explore student migration and look at some of the potential outcomes after Brexit, but in Durham it is clear that young minds are valued, wherever they are from.

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