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Ministers today backed a new study that is expected to pave the way for Theresa May to do a U-turn on including international students in immigration figures.
Many Cabinet ministers, including Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, are understood to believe foreign students should be excluded from the statistics given that the vast majority do not overstay in the country.
Yesterday a study using exit from the UK checks shredded official estimates that there was a gap of about 100,000 between those entering and leaving when their course ends. Instead, it put the number who overstay, breaching their visas, at a few thousand.
The data, published by the Office for National Statistics, undermined the case for keeping foreign students in the immigration numbers.
Now another study into their impact on the UK, by the Migration Advisory Committee, is expected to provide further evidence for the Prime Minister to ditch the practice.
While not wanting to be seen to criticise Mrs May, Education Secretary Justine Greening praised Home Secretary Amber Rudd for ordering the new report. “Sensible approach by @ukhomeoffice commissioning a full assessment of impact of #international students to the UK,” she tweeted.
Universities minister Jo Johnson said: “Good news — Government to commission assessment of international students.” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson refused to back the current policy of keeping foreign students in the migration figures, when asked several times on BBC radio about it.
Backbench Conservatives were less guarded in calling for a U-turn. Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns tweeted: “With English language schools and two universities in my patch I’ve long argued students shouldn’t be in net migration nos. Time to rethink.”
Bromley and Chislehurst MP Bob Neill hailed the “welcome shift in tone”, adding: “It’s very important we have access to global talent post-Brexit, including international students, many of whom study in London.”
Excluding international students from the net immigration figure could reduce it by about 110,000 annually, which would put the total at some 130,000, far closer to the Tory goal of tens of thousands.
The data showing how few students overstay sparked claims that millions of Britons were misled during the Brexit referendum debate. Author J K Rowling tweeted: “Migration figures ‘far lower than thought’. Lucky we got this accurate data or we might have made an historic mistake. #brexitshambles.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said: “Cabinet Brexiteers fought a referendum campaign on a flawed prospectus, scapegoating foreign students who weren’t even here, and demonising EU citizens who are now leaving the country voluntarily.”
A leading academic warned planned cuts to international student numbers risked dragging London’s universities “back to the Seventies”. Professor Paul Kelly, of the London School of Economics, said the capital’s future depended on attracting talent in the face of competition from top foreign universities.
What they say: fees are good for London
Eduardo Cortes, 28, Mexican film student studying at Goldsmiths:
Of course economically it’s a good thing for London and the country. The amount of money we spend here is insane — tuition fees for international students are double, I pay £20,000. If I have to go back to my country it’s fine, having a degree in London will be very good. But it’s very sad that the UK Government don’t give us any advantage. We have spent vast amounts of money, and then they just give us four months and we have to go.
Maruwa Ibrahim, 26, Norwegian-Eritrean, studying for a master’s in violence, conflict and development at SOAS:
My English friends love being on a campus where they get to meet people from all over the world. I think we contribute with a different perspective when we’re in class — I think that’s very valuable. I haven’t heard of anyone at SOAS that is staying longer than the visa limit. It makes more sense to go home and try and find a job that you would want long-term.
Joaquin Ollero, 28, Granada, Spain, studying for master’s in computer games technology at City University:
If I was going next year, I might have second thoughts about coming here and choose Germany. If there are more barriers for people to come to study in the UK, they will go somewhere else. If a lot of people from different places get together the culture and diversity will teach everyone how to see the world in a different way. That’s a very positive thing for the university and the city in general.
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