Full Fact – which calls itself the “UK’s Independent Fact Checking Charity” – has looked at the following claim from UK shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott:

Diane Abbott

Most [international] students return home after study.

Diane Abbott UK Shadow Home Secretary - 12 December 2016

Well maybe, but maybe not says Full Fact.

The truth, they say, is that nobody knows for sure how many international students in the UK return to their home countries after studying because there are simply no official figures on it. The UK’s Office for National Statistics confirms this:

Office for National Statistics, UK

There are no official figures that show how many students do not emigrate and remain in the UK after their studies.

Office for National Statistics, UK

Full Fact says the evidence that does exist seems to contradict Ms Abbott’s claim, showing that:

  • Most international students in the UK come from outside the EU on a temporary visa, and a minority still have the right to remain after a few years.
  • In every year since 2012 around 100,000 more student immigrants have arrived than former student emigrants have left. And each year the number of former international students leaving was less than half of new international students arriving.  The point here is that, if most international students are leaving the UK at the end of their studies, then you would expect the incoming and outgoing figures to roughly match up over time, or at least with a lag to account for the length of study.  For example, if 200,000 students entered the UK to start studying in 2012, you would expect to see about the same number leaving three or four years later.


On the face of it then, this data shows that many international students in the UK are not returning home when they complete their studies.

So what are they doing?

The UK’s Office of National Statistics had three ideas about the apparently large number of international students who stay in the UK when they finish studying:

1. Students might be staying longer than expected through legitimate means, like getting extensions on their visas for further study or to move into work.

Most international students come from outside the EU on a temporary visa. They can stay longer in the UK by extending their visa, either to continue study or move into a different category such as a work visa.

In 2016, there were around 44,000 visa extensions of this kind, but the numbers are dropping quickly. In 2009 it was over 112,000.

2. They might be breaking the law by overstaying their visa.

There is no reliable data on this so it is difficult to say one way or the other whether international students are overstaying their visas in big numbers.

3. The statistics could be missing students.

The statistics are far from perfect.  The ONS says that it and other UK government departments are working together on a continuing program of research to better understand what international students do after their studies.

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