Net migration to the UK has fallen to its lowest level in three years, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. This fall is largely attributed to a significant increase in the number of EU nationals leaving the UK since June 2016, when the country voted for Brexit.

Alongside these statistics came news that previous assumptions about international students overstaying their visas were incorrect. Whereas previous estimates put the figures on overstaying at around 100,000, now the Office for National Statistics claims that a mere 4,617 did in 2016-’17. This correction has been brought about by a new system of border checks on exit implemented in 2016. The figures indicated that 97% of international students from outside the European Economic Area are now thought to leave before their visa expires.

There has been longstanding frustration from the UK higher education sector about the inclusion of students within net migration statistics. Universities have lobbied hard against portrayals of students as people intent on coming to the country through a back door to stay and work illegally.

The new figures suggest the opposite: international students have been found to be honest, after all. The fact that this has come as a surprise to government leaves a very bad taste in the mouth indeed, and reflects an ongoing – possibly pernicious – stereotyping and misrepresenting of international students.

Clearly, there needs to be a fresh evaluation of assumptions that are taken for granted about international students in the UK. Perhaps this might begin with the plans, also announced by the government, to invite a panel of experts to consider the economic impact that international students have had and are having on the UK labour market.

Over the past few years, Britain has become a hostile place for prospective overseas students. This hostility can be traced in part to Theresa May’s time as home secretary from 2010 to 2016, when she made it her mission to crack down on so-called bogus colleges (over 900 were reportedly closed) – blatant abusers, as she saw it, of the UK’s immigration system. Since then, anti-immigrant sentiment disseminated by groups such as Migration Watch UK and a reliance on defective snap-shot surveys, have led to an overestimation of the number of international students “abusing” the system and overstaying their visas.

Despite many calls by universities, some in the media, several cabinet ministers, and others, to end the policy of counting international students in overall net migration numbers, the government’s attempts to reduce numbers of immigrants to the UK have included this group. They have been seen as an easy target.

The “discovery”, with these new statistics, that most international students leave after their studies end must now reinforce the case that they should not be counted as immigrants in the traditional sense.

Other options available

For many people, however, the finding that 97% of non-European Economic Area students on study visas leave the UK after completing their studies will come as no surprise. The tedious association drawn by the Conservative government between international students and illegality is now having an impact on the numbers choosing to come to the UK – numbers have recently, for the first time in many years, been falling.

The UK has always ranked second (behind the US) as the foremost global destination for international students, but the international higher education landscape is changing, and UK arrogance and complacency will have a damaging longer-term impact on higher education and the knowledge economy at large. The UK is one of the few countries in the world without a strategy to grow international student numbers.

The benefits that international students bring to the UK are manifold, and far exceed financial calculations of student fees. Students bring knowledge and ideas, they bring social and cultural diversity, they enrich and support UK universities, and they spend money beyond the confines of their degree course.

Yet students are looking elsewhere: to countries in Europe offering English-language tuition, for example, or to the US, Canada and Australia. Even China (the largest source country of international students) has started to attract students from the wider region, potentially damaging the UK international higher education market.

Understanding the landscape

The growth in transnational higher education, where countries “off-shore” provision of higher education (with some setting up campuses abroad), will also undoubtedly have an impact on the numbers of international students choosing to come, physically, to the UK to study. Some will prefer the cheaper and easier option of studying for a UK or other degree at or nearer to home.

The UK needs to cease its hostile positioning of international students and start to attract them – and even entice them to stay and work in the UK after graduation. Experts who research international student migration also know about the relative value of qualifications gained overseas and how value varies geographically. For example, a UK degree has far more value to an international student graduate “back home” (where it is a relatively rarefied commodity) than it has for them in the UK, where graduate jobs are still highly competitive. This means that many people use international student mobility as a stepping stone towards future international mobility, rather than as a final destination in itself.

One would hope that many of those who leave the UK after study would indeed one day return (having amassed many happy memories of living and studying in Britain), bringing with them cultural and economic value and skills. But in the medium term at least, they will go elsewhere.

The bottom line is that it is really not surprising that the overwhelming vast majority of international students comply with visa regulations. We need to be far more critical and self-reflective about levels of bigotry and open hostility surrounding attitudes to international migrants in the UK, including international students.

Johanna Waters, Associate Professor in Human Geography, University of Oxford.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.