How do the UK’s Competitors Count International Students?

Much has been said about the UK’s counting of international students in net migration figures. Whilst there are some reports that the Prime Minister – amongst others, most notably Vince Cable – are concerned with the effect this is having on the UK economy, how do other countries count student migrants?

And more importantly, with the UK’s education sector losing market share to its competitors, how do they count student migrants?

This issue is interesting as all countries are required to report net migration figures to the UN, with a single definition of what a migrant is. The government has argued it can’t remove international students from net migration figures as they claim to be bound by the UN definition of net migration. It should be made clear that no-one is asking the government to change the definition, but as we will explore in this article, several countries don’t count students as being migrants as they are temporary by nature. They are only included in the count if they switch immigration category to a long-term or permanent one, such as for work or settlement.

The UK’s reporting of these figures is unique in that they lump international students with highly skilled workers, family migration, European migration and refugees. How can the UK have any kind of granular understanding of the migration figures when they are reported in such a way?

Several pressure groups are calling on government to make this change. But what happens in other countries?

The United States of America

America has two sources of data concerning migration. Producing estimates of net international migration is the responsibility of the United States Census Bureau, and are based on the following:

  • Immigration of the foreign born
  • Emigration of the foreign born
  • Net migration between the United States and Puerto Rico
  • Net migration of natives to and from the United States
  • Net movement of the Armed Forces population to and from the United States

The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for producing permanent immigration statistics. Whilst it is clear that the US Census Bureau counts international students under the immigration / emigration of the foreign born categories, they are not by the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, international students are classified as non-immigrant admissions alongside tourists, business travellers and those involved with cultural exchange programmes.

The Department of Homeland Security also has an additional category for legal permanent residents. These are people who have been issued green cards. Refugees, asylum seekers and those who have naturalised are counted separately.

It should be obvious then that the UN definition of a migrant has no bearing on the migration statistics produced by the United States. Their stats are simply interesting in whether someone is foreign born or not, or whether a particular migrant is in the US on a permanent or temporary basis, as denoted by the immigration category they have applied under.


Australia does in fact count the number of international student arrivals in estimates of total net overseas migration but they are however included as net temporary arrivals. Others in this category include temporary skilled workers, tourists, visitors and working holiday makers.

Australia counts net permanent arrivals separately, which includes employer-sponsored workers and arrivals under the Humanitarian Programs. It counts returning citizens, permanent residents and citizens from New Zealand settling in Australia as net other arrivals. This provides a highly granular look at the figures.

More importantly, Australia’s presentation of net migration figures is not based on the UN migrant definition. Instead, Australia categorises migrants strictly on a temporary or permanent basis.


It is the job of Citizenship and Immigration Canada to produce annual statistics on immigration. These data is split by different temporary and permanent categories. International students are counted as temporary.

A separate body, Statistics Canada, performs its own calculation on net migration in the following way:

net international migration = immigrants – (emigrants + net temporary emigrants) + net non-permanent residents + returning emigrants

So, Canada counts international students in the overall net calculations, but students are categorised in the non-permanent resident category, along with foreign workers, humanitarian workers and other temporary residents. As a result, students are not counted as long-term immigrants.

Again, it should be apparent that the UN migrant definition has no influence on Canada’s presentation of immigration statistics. A distinction is made based on the class of visa a migrant holds, much like the USA and Australia. Canada defines immigrants as those who were born outside of Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers, Canadian citizens born outside Canada and those with student or working visas6. Non-permanent residents are persons holding a work or study permit or refugee claimants.

New Zealand

New Zealand is special case in that they are trying to reverse the trend of net emigration. Indeed, New Zealand is actively looking to expand its numbers of international students.

Therefore it is of little significance – from a policy perspective – that New Zealand reports immigration figures in a similar way to the UK. New Zealand reports numbers of permanent and long-term arrivals – defined as people from overseas arriving to live in New Zealand for 12 months or more (including permanently), and New Zealanders returning after an absence of 12 months or more overseas.

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