Are international students immigrants?

The British immigration debate is turning up some interesting pieces of public opinion. A recent poll found a majority of respondents did not want the government to cut-back on the number of overseas students. However the more interesting finding better highlights the crux of the issue:

“Christopher Snowden, UUK president, said: “The poll is clear that the public sees international students as valuable, temporary visitors, not immigrants.”

The British public might not view international students as immigrants. I wonder how international students view themselves?

There is a clear link between young people using overseas education to obtain residency elsewhere. In Australia, we have some experience of this. In the 2000s, extremely lax regulations generated a pathway from a student visa to a permanent skilled visa and Australian residency. This created a “bubble” in the industry of international education provision. This bubble filled with quick, unsustainable growth and subsequently popped when the rules were changed:

Student visa applications lodged, rolling 12 month average (June 2006 – June 2011)

Student visas

Other factors were also at play. High profile violence against Indian students in Melbourne is one example. However the link between permanent residency and student visas was an important consideration for many international students.

This has been recognised by policy-makers. The competition amongst education providers to attract overseas students is not limited to Australia. The United States, Canada and many countries in Europe seek to attract overseas students. These students pay large fees, rent or buy houses and spend money in local economies. All without access to government safety nets.

In choosing which country to live in and which education provider to attend, a value is placed on recourse to future residency. In Australia, this has led directly to the creation of post-study work visas, allowing international students between two and four years to work (without restrictions) in Australia. Any explicit reference to “temporary visitors, not immigrants” in Australia should now be ignored as the policy environment is much more complicated. While the visas still restrict access to permanent residency, the combination of a student visa and a work visa provides for six to nine years of valid residency.

As more potential students learn of these work visas, it will assist Australian education providers “win” the global competition for overseas students given this is an advantage not enjoyed by American or English universities.

Perhaps societies cannot have it both ways. Attracting international students may require additional acceptance that some, even a majority, of these students will stay on and work in countries where they studied. In Australia, despite specifically acknowledging this link through post-study work visas and past policy mistakes, the public at large probably does not understand international students as migrants and opinion is likely similar to British attitudes in the poll.

To me, the British poll highlights this contradiction neatly. Groups who support immigration, such as Mr Snowdon and the UUK, use the poll to promote more access for overseas students on the very premise these people are not immigrants but visitors. This stance may further immigration goals in the short-term but will inevitably lead to confusion over the long-term when it turns out this is not the case at all. Perhaps ironically, groups who oppose immigration normally understand the connection between education and residency and campaign against it.

It’s easy to look past the consequences of rhetoric and public opinion in the short-term to gain policy reform but immigration advocates would do well to also consider the gaps between how the public views immigration and how immigrants view themselves. These gaps are the policy battles of the future and once a migrant has arrived with a preference to stay, it is extremely hard to walk to tough road of forced deportations. This forces the hand of governments and in increasingly populist political environments, this can have nasty consequences.

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