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Students and net migration
04 Jan, 2018

Theresa May’s argument makes no sense

London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg reminds the Prime Minister of the difference between a statistic and a target.

Ignore for now that we should not have a misguided numerical target for immigration – which Theresa May as Home Secretary always missed, even for the immigration that was wholly under her control. Of course it is shooting ourselves in the foot to restrict the numbers of overseas students.

Let’s just see what Theresa May’s justification for including students in the target tells us about her.

The reason that Theresa May most commonly gives us for why students must stay in the net migration target is that she has to follow international definitions.

This makes no sense.

Yes, there are international standards for statistics. Students on long courses fall within the definition of migrants. So we must include them in the statistics that we report.

However, no-one is obliging the UK Government to target net migration at all. 

And if there is to be a target, no-one is obliging the government to use the international statistics definition for that target.

The Government is entirely free to set its target in whatever way it likes.

True, all definitions of targets contain rough edges. There is a real credibility benefit in using for a target an internationally recognised statistic because it reduces the opportunities for cheating. But that benefit does not justify targeting something significant that you do not wish to target.

Thinking of Theresa May's other reasons: more recent evidence showed that the Government had hugely overstated the problem of students overstaying. The precedent problem (others will lobby to be taken out of the target) has been described as not doing the right thing now because you might then be asked to do the right thing later.

It is hard to believe that Theresa May does not know the difference between a statistic and a target. So why does she keep saying it? Stubbornly persisting in something most of her Cabinet knows is wrong? Now, what else could that be true about?