Student visas targeted in drive to cut migrant numbers

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has announced that major new restrictions on overseas students will form a key part of the government’s commitment to reduce immigration.

She said there would be a government consultation on whether the student visa system should be tailored to quality of course and institution, suggesting that some universities could see a cut in the number of international students they can recruit.

Rudd said there had to be tighter regulation of students on low-quality courses and suggested that prospective students will have to pass an English language test.

But Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, said any new criteria for entry should reflect the fact that international students directly support regional economies and supply high-level graduate skills.

And the University and College Union condemned the announcement as equating to “pulling up the drawbridge” on thousands of potential students.

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Rudd said the government would not waver in its commitment to reduce the flow of migrants into the country.

“We will deliver on our manifesto commitment,” she said. “Today I am setting out how we will get immigration under control, in the long term by reducing the numbers that come from Europe, in the mid-term by reforming the student and work route of entry and in the short term by taking action to help communities affected by high levels of immigration and stopping people coming here that threaten our security.”

She said she would consult on changes to the student immigration system. Currently, overseas students from outside Europe make up 167,000 of the 600,000 new migrants each year. Net migration is 327,000.

“Reducing net migration back down to sustainable levels will not be easy. But I am committed to delivering it on behalf of the British people,” Rudd said.

But, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The UK has a world-class reputation for the quality of its universities. We have one of the strongest systems for quality assurance in the world.

“The diversity of institutions and the range of high-quality courses offered is one of the many strengths of our university sector.”

She said any criteria for allowing students into the country migration must reflect that diversity and support the critical role that many universities play in their regions, where the impact of international students directly supports regional economies, supplies high-level graduate skills, and ensures the sustainability of many courses at regional level.

“Polling has shown that the British public does not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. International students come to the UK, study for a period, and then the overwhelming majority go home after their studies.

She said international (non-EU) students already make a £7 billion (US$8.9 billion) contribution to the UK economy, generating almost 137,000 jobs in communities in every region of the UK. International staff also make a vital contribution to our universities and country.

Professor Dave Phoenix, chair of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said: “All UK universities are quality assured and there is no evidence that international students currently being accepted on courses are poorly qualified. These students have high levels of retention and completion and already have to meet stringent conditions laid down by the Home Office to gain a visa.

“We shall be responding to the Home Office consultation but the real answer is for the government to stop treating international students as economic migrants and to take them out of the migration numbers altogether.”

'Closed for business'

University and College Union General Secretary, Sally Hunt, condemned the move to tighten up the student visa system. She said the consultation would look at limiting international student recruitment to the 'best' universities and courses, and “equates to pulling up the drawbridge on thousands of potential students and sending out a message that the UK is closed for business”.

She said: "Our universities' international student recruitment is a huge success story because overseas students are attracted by the quality of higher education available. International students make an enormous contribution to UK higher education both educationally and economically. As highly skilled people, they make an invaluable contribution to our economy.

“Ministers need to take a very different approach and support universities by removing international students from the net migration target altogether.”