Public says foreign student numbers should not be cut

An overwhelming majority of the British public say the government should not reduce international student numbers – whether or not that limits the ability to cut the overall number of immigrants.

Even two thirds of Conservative voters are opposed to reducing student numbers, according to a new report by the think-tank British Future, and Universities UK, which represents the country’s universities.

This is despite immigration cuts being a major issue of concern within the Conservative Party – which is the largest party in the ruling coalition – and being likely to be high on the political agenda in the general election in May 2015.

According to the report published last Monday, only one in five members of the public thinks students should count as immigrants. The findings were based on an ICM poll of 2,111 people and six deliberative workshops around the UK.

The report, International Students and the UK Immigration Debate, said the findings proved that there was “strong public support for international student migration, and that people seem to understand the economic and educational benefits brought to Britain by those who come here to study”.

It called on the government to remove international students from any net migration target and launch a strategy to attract more international students to Britain, backed by investment to promote British universities overseas.

It said the government should make a renewed effort to communicate a consistent message that “Britain welcomes international students”, and enhance opportunities for international graduates to stay in the UK to work and contribute to the economy.

Key findings

Other key findings include that 60% of people think international students bring money into their local economy, compared with 12% who think they take money out.

Some 61% agree that Britain’s universities would have less funding to invest in top quality facilities and teaching without the higher fees paid by international students.

Three out of four people think international students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating from British universities and use their skills to benefit the economy for at least a period of time.

In a foreword to the report, Mark Field MP, chair of Conservatives for Managed Migration, said few members of the public had students in mind when they expressed concern about the impact and number of migrants coming into Britain.

“This creates a dilemma when it comes politically to managing the tricky minefield of migration. Any uplift in the number of international students means greater scientific, economic and cultural benefit to Britain. Yet it also spells trouble for politicians trying desperately to cut headline immigration figures.”

He said it need not be this way, because as the report shows, students are among the most popular migrants with the public, in spite of their representing one of the largest inflows of people coming to the UK.

“Even the majority of those sympathetic to the overall aim of reducing migration believe that student migration is a good thing, both economically and culturally.”

Public consensus

He found an ally this week in former Conservative deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, who told BBC Radio 4 that students are “not the sort of people that are causing the anxiety about immigration” and should be removed from government immigration targets.

He said international students brought financial stability to UK universities, enabling them to maintain standards of excellence, and also played a valuable ambassadorial role for universities when they go out into the world.

Mark Field said there was a broad public consensus that international students were good for Britain.

“People are happy to see the skills they have gained here help British firms rather than our international competitors; and they are rightly anxious when they see other English-speaking nations aggressively target the lucrative international student market at the expense of British universities.”

He said it was always a mistake to include the student migrant flow with a target to reduce overall immigration numbers and that as Britain was seeking to promote industries that could exploit global growth driven from beyond Europe, universities should be challenged and supported to increase their share of the rapidly expanding international student market.

Tough new measures

At the end of last month the government announced new measures to impose tougher rules on universities and colleges who sponsor international students to study in the UK.

Currently, educational institutions cannot enjoy highly trusted sponsor status if 20% or more of the individuals they have offered places to are refused visas.

But from November that figure will be halved to 10%, following a three-month transitional period for colleges and universities to re-examine their admissions procedures before offering individuals places.

Home Secretary Theresa May said: “We will always act when we see abuse of our immigration system. And that is why we are tightening the rules to cut out abuse in the student visa system.”