The Cameron Years
Whether or not to remove students from net migration figures is a debate which has raged for some time. During his tenure as Business Secretary under the Coalition Government, Vince Cable tried hard to persuade his Conservative coalition partners to remove students from net migration figures. In spite of receiving support from multiple sources, including the HE sector, various government departments, the BIS select committee, think tanks etc., the move was blocked by the Home Office, and notably the then Home Secretary Theresa May. It is widely viewed that the Home Office strongly opposed any such attempts due to a determination to deliver on the Conservative promise to reduce immigration levels from the “hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands”. Students, and in particular “bogus students”, were viewed as an “easy target” to cut down and the Home Office believed that any attempt to remove genuine international students from this calculation would be seized upon and criticised as the Government “fiddling the figures”.
It has been rumoured that prior to the Brexit referendum, David Cameron had finally been convinced of the benefits of removing students from net migration figures and had made a decision to oppose the Home Secretary and make an announcement that international students would be taken out. Subsequent political events – a vote for Brexit and Cameron’s resignation – prevented this from happening.
International Students under May
Theresa May’s move to Downing Street served to cement this policy position, although recent statistics showing a decrease in the number of international students, largely due to strict Home Office policies aiming to decrease net migration figures, have led to a renewed push to remove international students from these figures. Various reports have revealed that the general public do not perceive students to be immigrants; and according to the Home Office’s own statistics, 80% of international students return home after studying, leading many to claim that they are more akin to tourists than economic migrants.
The issue hit the spotlight once again this month when the House of Lords approved a controversial amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill which stated that the “secretary of state [for education] shall ensure that no student…be treated for public policy purposes as a long-term migrant”. Several Conservative Peers, including former Universities Minister Lord Willetts, voted against the Government to support the amendment. However, as part of the parliamentary process, the Bill will now go back to the Commons where it is expected that the Government Whips will ensure that Conservative MPs do not rebel against the Government by ratifying the amendment. Conservative MPs are not expected to rebel against their Party in spite of the fact that more than 30 of them reportedly signed a letter to the Prime Minister this month, which called for the removal of international students from immigration targets. If the amendment is rejected, Peers would need to consider whether they would continue to fight for the amendment when legislation returns to the Lords.
What is clear however is that the Prime Minister is facing an increasing level of opposition to her stance on international students. Along with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and even UKIP, senior ministers including the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, have all supported the move to take international students out of the calculations. The issue is receiving an increased level of parliamentary time, with written and oral questions being tabled by a wide range of MPs.
In spite of increased pressure from a wide range of stakeholders, the prevailing mood will be one of extreme surprise if the Prime Minister agrees to what would be deemed a significant u-turn from her on this issue. Given that the Government is currently feeling the heat following the u-turn on the Chancellor’s Budget announcement to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed, she will be eager to avoid taking any more decisions which could undermine her credibility.
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