The president of the CBI employers’ group has warned that it would be “utter madness” for ministers to try to bring down migration by cutting the number of foreign students at UK universities.
Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder of Cobra beer and chancellor of Birmingham university, said he was “very concerned” by government discussions on cutting overseas student numbers: “It would be a backward step,” he said.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak wants to bring down net migration — as promised in the 2019 election manifesto — and is currently most focused on stopping migrants from crossing the Channel in small boats. New legislation to toughen asylum rules is being drawn up.
But several government officials have told the Financial Times that “early discussions” on controlling the number of overseas students in Britain are taking place.
One option under review is changing rules that allow students on masters’ courses to bring family members with them. Another reform could prevent students from switching from study to work visas during their course.
A third option is a review of graduate work visas, which were reintroduced in 2021 and allow students to stay in the UK for two years after leaving university.
Government insiders say there is no question of the regime being scrapped but that Suella Braverman, home secretary, had considered shortening the length of the visas. The plan faces strong internal Whitehall resistance.
One person close to the discussions said the education and business departments, along with the Treasury, feared the economic costs of any move to deter overseas students, who are seen as a valuable source of revenue for universities and a boon to the economy.
“Early discussions have happened but it’s too early to say what direction we will take,” said one person briefed on the talks.
Reducing legal migration is seen by some in Whitehall as “an easier lever to pull” than trying to control illegal migration, hence the renewed focus on overseas students.
According to the Russell Group, one annual cohort of international students is worth £25.9bn to the UK. Universities have come to rely on overseas recruits, who pay higher fees than home students, to bolster their finances.
Three years ago the government set a target to increase the number of international students enrolled at UK universities from 470,000 in 2018 to 600,000 by 2030.
That target has already been exceeded — figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show 680,000 international students enrolled in 2021/2 — giving ministers some political cover for controlling numbers.
Some of the increase is explained by growing numbers of students from groups more likely to bring family members, such as older students from Nigeria. Last year, Indian students overtook those from China as the biggest group among international students for the first time.
Jo Johnson, former universities minister, said it was “not unreasonable” to allow international students to bring family members only if they were studying for longer qualifications or doing research.
However, he said any move should not be framed as “presaging a wider return to a hostile environment”. The “core policy architecture” of the graduate work route should remain “intact”, he added.
Bilimoria argues that the big increase in foreign students is a great British success story and that it would be folly to try to cut numbers. “It’s one of our strongest exports,” he said. “This is all very bad news.”
The government said its immigration system sought to attract “top-class talent” and contribute to the UK’s “excellent academic reputation”. It kept immigration policies “under constant review”, it added.