It doesn't matter that the government has got the number of migrants wrong. Here's why

The big problem is that the government thinks immigration has been bad for Britain, not that it has been overestimating the scale of it.


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If you’ve ever had a particularly bad day at work, don’t worry, it could be worse: you could have distorted seven years of British policy-making. The Office for National Statistics has vastly overestimated the number of foreign students overstaying their visas. It had put the number from overseas staying past their visas at more than 100,000 a year. The actual figure is 4,700.

In order to “get numbers down”, Theresa May, first as home secretary and thereafter as Prime Minister, sharply limited the freedoms of overseas students to come to the United Kingdom in the first place, and oversaw increasing levels of graduate deportation. Meanwhile, the accompanying furore over the numbers overstaying very probably helped take Britain out of the European Union.

It puts any missed paperwork or forgotten deadlines into sharp relief, that’s for sure. But expressing relief that the number of students overstaying is “only” 4,700 misses a more important point, and it’s this: one of the biggest public policy successes of the last Labour government was the vast increase in the number of students from abroad who came here to get a degree, whether at a university, a business school or another higher or further education institution.

It’s not just that overseas students have transformed the financial position of individual universities. As I’ve written before, opening a university is one of the most effective ways of regenerating a city. They create well-paying and secure work in the surrounding area, both directly for the university and servicing the needs of the university population, both students and workers.

Increasing the number of overseas students – which went from less than 60,000 when Labour took office in 1997 to more than 240,000 in 2010 – helped to finance both the expansion of higher education, and, through the arrival of often affluent overseas students, stimulated the local economy. One of the commonalities in the renaissance of Britain’s great cities in the 1990s and 2000s was the arrival of students from abroad.

Contrary to what some in the political elite claim – Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s defenestrated aide, is the latest to do so – that immigration has benefited everyone, not just the “middle-class commentariat”. It has directly benefited “middle-class” people working in the higher education sector, that’s true. But it has also directly benefited everyone whose job involves selling or servicing the higher education sector, as well as countless jobs that are indirectly created by Britain’s higher education institutions.

As with the higher education sector, so too with the whole of the British economy. Everyone in the United Kingdom, and I really do mean everyone, has benefited from immigration which has, among other things, helped keep food prices low and made the country’s ageing population less of a demographic crisis than it otherwise would be.

That the ONS has got its numbers wrong is bad, yes. But it’s a lot worse that public policy has been set on the idea that more people coming to study at British universities has been bad for Britain – however bad that may be. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.