International Students Research Finds Public More Interested in Talent Than Targets

27/08/2014 15:44 BST | Updated 26/10/2014 09:59 GMT

What do the public think about international students? Do they see them simply as generating revenue for universities or as longer term migrants who can bring new talent to the UK? New research by British Future shows that there is support for international students among the general public who both recognise the benefits they bring and believe we should make use of their skills and talent. While public concern about immigration cannot be ignored, these findings are likely to reflect favourable attitudes towards skilled migration more generally.

Changes in policy have led to a fall in international students in the UK

Our universities are world leaders, with only the United States attracting more students to cross borders to study there. But changes in immigration policy have led to a fall in applications to UK universities from overseas. Immigration policy has increased red tape and restrictions on post-study, all with the aim of achieving the Conservative Party's plan to reduce net migration to 100,000 by the end of this parliament. In 2012-13 just under 172,000 students came to study in Britain, compared to more than 174,000 in 2010-11, reversing strong levels of growth up until 2010.

It isn't only universities who benefit from international students. For employers they enlarge the recruitment pool, particularly since they are over-represented in STEM subjects and postgraduate courses. Much recent research, including by NIESR, highlights the positive attitudes of employers. What is new about British Future's research is its focus on the general public's views on international students and of the skills they offer the UK, gathered through a national survey and focus groups in York, Bristol and Birmingham.

The public has a positive view of international students

I was fortunate to sit in on the focus groups in York earlier this year, expertly facilitated by Zoe Tyndall of Britain Thinks. Having been a student in two university towns with ambivalent relationships with students, including Sheffield where an annual 'pyjama jump' brought multitudes of drunken students clothed in nightwear on to its streets, I would not have been surprised if attitudes towards the university and its students were less than enthusiastic. Surprisingly little mention was made of this kind of annoyance, with the university seen as boosting local prosperity and cultural life. In all three locations international students were viewed on the whole as hardworking contributors, both financially and in terms of their attitude. This view, which was held by participants who were otherwise quite negative about immigration, was also confirmed by a larger national survey where 60% of respondents said international students put in more than they take out. Therefore, when asked about potential reductions in net migration, only a fifth of respondents would reduce the number of international students to achieve such an aim and most (59%) said the government should not reduce the number of international students coming to the UK, even if this means a lower reduction in immigration.

Students are seen as a source of skills and talent

Positive attitudes towards international students may, as British Future argues, stem from the view that they are not really migrants, since they are here temporarily. However, this is almost certainly not the full explanation. British Future reports that most respondents to its survey (75%) agreed that

'International students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating from British universities, using their skills for the benefit of our economy, for at least a period of time'.

Only 13% felt they should not be allowed to do so. It was seen as better to keep international students and their skills here than to lose them to international competitors. One participant expressed concern that:

'They come here, they study, then they take all those wonderful skills away'.

These views were expressed with the caveat that skilled migrants should not be used to substitute for home-grown talent. Survey data shows similar positive views towards skilled migration, its role in meeting skills needs and filling skills gaps. This is even apparent from large scale surveys: Rob Ford's analysis of the 2011 British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey shows that when migrants were described as professionals, they are viewed positively, while when described as unskilled, viewed negatively.

Support for skilled migration is combined with low awareness of current patterns and policy

But this support for skilled migration, found consistently by research, is combined with a low awareness of both the skilled nature of much migration to the UK and the effects of current government policy. The BSA Survey also shows that awareness of the cap on skilled migration from outside of the EU is surprisingly low, with fewer than half of respondents in 2013 aware that a limit is placed on numbers entering through this route. The public perception of a migrant worker is an unskilled labourer from outside the EU, yet data compiled by the Migration Observatory shows only 21% of migrants have previously worked in clerical and manual occupations, while 27% come from professional and managerial occupations and 37% have previously been studying. In terms of their qualifications, as figures compiled by Jonathan Wadsworth show, fewer than one in six new migrants finished their education by the age of 16, compared to more than half of the UK-born workforce; more than half of new immigrants continued in education until their 21st birthday or beyond, compared with only one in five of UK-born members of the workforce. Migrants' skills are both under-utilised by employers but they are also under-appreciated by the public.

The public is ready to debate migration issues, not just numbers

British Future points out that public concern about immigration is something no party can afford to ignore. However, it has been dominated by speculation about numbers, by the focus on low skilled work, on access to benefits and demands on public services. This reflects both media coverage, but also political debate and policy making. As a result, opinion research finds the public is most concerned about national impacts with relatively few expressing concern at any effects of migration they may experience locally. However, national level concern appears to be high, with polls finding over 70% of the public in favour of a reduction in migration. Yet any more in-depth discussion with the public finds a more nuanced view, which recognises the benefit of attracting skilled migrants and rejects an approach based simply on migrant numbers. The focus group participants drew on their own experiences, gained first hand in their localities, just as NIESR research found that individuals' views can be affected through experiences of working alongside migrants in their own workplaces.

Immigration will undoubtedly be one of the biggest issues for the 2015 General Election. But, as research consistently shows, meaningful debate is hampered by a focus on numbers and fueled by misunderstandings about who is allowed to live and work in the UK. British Future's report suggests the public is ready to look beyond numbers, assess the evidence and engage in a more constructive debate.