Net migration to the UK from April 2011 to March 2012 was 183,000, down by a quarter on 242,000 the year before. That’s the headline figure from today’s Office for National Statistics release, and the government is using it to claim success. Immigration minister Mark Harper said:

‘This shows we are bringing immigration back under control. Our tough policies are taking effect and this marks a significant step towards bringing net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands by the end of this Parliament.’

But it’s worth looking a bit deeper into the figures. Overall, immigration was at its lowest level since 2004 — when the EU was enlarged to include eight eastern European countries, which are now the source of 13 per cent of immigration to the UK. The number of people coming to the UK fell by 42,000: 17,000 fewer came to work, 19,000 fewer to study. The number leaving the UK rose by 17,000.

About half of the drop in net migration is actually, as Matt Cavanagh noted in August, ‘due to the comings and goings of British citizens’. 19,000 fewer Brits came to Britain, while 10,000 more went abroad.

Meanwhile, new Home Office stats show that 508,488 visas were issued between October 2011 and September 2012 (excluding visitor and transit visas) — 85,490 fewer than the year before. But 86 per cent of that drop is due to the cut in study visas issued: 73,728 fewer were issued this year than last, whereas the number of work visas fell by just 6,437.

Some of the reduction in student visas will be thanks to the government’s crackdown on ‘bogus students’ — but it’s also likely that the new restrictions on students staying on to work after finishing their degree is deterring genuine ones. The Home Affairs Select Committee last year cautioned against this, emphasising that ‘The export of education is not only economically beneficial to this country but also vital to the UK’s international relations.’ And the IPPR points out that:

‘The irony is that the impacts on net migration will only be short-lived because most students stay only for a short time. Reduced immigration today means reduced emigration in a year or two’s time, which could see net migration rise again.’

The IPPR, the Home Affairs committee and the Business, Innovation and Skills committee, have all called on the government to exclude students from the net migration figures — and its immigration target. Though the government hasn’t done this, David Willetts said he wants to ‘publicise disaggregated figures so that the debate can be better informed.’

Well, if you exclude students from today’s figures, net migration is actually negative. That is, excluding students, 11,000 more people left the UK than entered it between April 2011 and March 2012. 29,000 more went abroad for work than come here to work.

Of course, a proper figure would add back in those students who stay on once their course has finished, something we can’t do with the current figures. But it is clear how much of an effect students have on the immigration headlines.

Tags: Growth, Immigration, Students