Theresa May is facing pressure to remove international students from the government’s net migration target. This should come as no surprise; many centre-right voices have long been trying to persuade the Prime Minister to make the change. Cabinet ministers, Ruth Davidson and Scottish Conservatives MPs, Conservative peers, Conservative chairs of select committees and, indeed, Bright Blue.
It now seems inevitable that an amendment will be put forward to the Immigration Bill this year proposing the change. And it looks likely that there will be enough votes to put the proposal on the statute books. Taking students out of the target in advance of this Bill is not only politically wise, but makes economic and geopolitical sense.
The Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, recently stressed that there is no cap on the number of non-EU international students who can come to study in the UK. This is true. But as long as students count towards the net migration target, the government is incentivised to introduce restrictive policies on them, as May tried to do when she was at the Home Office. Indeed, recent figures suggest that the number of non-EU international students coming to study in the UK has almost halved since the net migration target was introduced in 2010.
Recent polling from ICM finds that 76 per cent of the public want the number of international students to stay the same or increase. Bright Blue’s own research shows that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters do not want a reduction in the number of international students, with 85 per cent of Conservative Party voters either happy with the current number of international students or wanting more of them.
International students are estimated to boost the British economy by around £8 billion per year. Not only do they pay higher tuition fees, boosting revenue for British universities, they spend on goods and services throughout their stay. Other countries recognise this and are introducing policies to lure more students. Australia and the Canada have experienced significant increases in the number of international students, and many American universities are offering generous scholarships to international students.
International students can spread liberal, democratic and British values. Spending time studying here can create a strong sense of loyalty to – and a greater understanding of – the UK. The Higher Education Policy Institute recently published findings that more heads of state and heads of government have been educated in the UK than in an any other country. Exposure to democratic political norms here in the UK can be transferred to the students’ home countries. If British universities can be a route to spreading democratic and liberal values across the world, that should be cherished.
The overwhelming majority of the public in this country are in agreement on the benefits of foreign students. Removing foreign students from the net migration target would reinforce the message to the world that Brexit does not mean Britain is closing its doors.