The government should cut student numbers out of its official migration figures or else risk harming the UK economy, a leading think tank said today.
A report by centre-left think tank IPPR argued that including international students in immigration figures provided a perverse incentive for the government to pretend it was cutting long term migration when it was actually reducing short-term visitors.
"If the government ignores these arguments it must admit that it is placing short-term political considerations above a genuine concern with long-term net migration," said Sarah Mulley, IPPR associate director.
"The government need to take international students out of the immigration ‘numbers game’, which is damaging our universities and colleges, our economy and our international standing."
Just 15% of students stay permanently in the UK but their inclusion in the general figures means long-term immigration numbers can be massaged down by concentrating on an easy-to-track group, even if doing so has little effect on long-term visitors in the real world.
IPPR's analysis suggests the current method of measuring student migration flows provides the government with an opportunity to "game" its own 2015 net migration target by reducing the number of genuine international students coming to the UK in 2012-14.
Some experts predict that an annual reduction of 50,000 international students will cost the UK £2-3 billion.