The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has backed calls to exclude international students from net migration targets.
The statement was made in the committee’s report, ‘The work of the UK Border Agency’, which covers the agency’s work from December 2011 to March 2012. The document was published on 23 July.
The MPs say the government’s target of reducing migration from “the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands” cannot be met “without drastically reducing the number of people who come to study in Britain”.
They estimate that the UK market in international higher education is worth £7.9 billion and argue that the government’s aim to cut student visas by 25 per cent is therefore likely to hurt the economy.
“We recommend that the government should exclude students from their net migration target. This will enable the government to encourage students to come to the UK whilst maintaining their position on curbing immigration,” reads the report. “It is important that the UK does not fall behind its international competitors in this market by making itself a less attractive option for international students.”
To combat fraud in the system, however, the committee recommends making face to face interviews compulsory for all international students where possible, and online interviews in other cases. It argues such a move would “uphold public confidence in the immigration system and help to counter damaging government rhetoric which conflates a reduction in the number of student visas with eliminating fraud in the system”.
The MPs’ report adds to growing concerns about cuts in student visas. In May, Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ umbrella group, wrote to prime minister David Cameron urging the government to exclude students from the immigration count.
Speaking to journalists on 17 May, the group’s president, Eric Thomas, said international students should be classified as “temporary” or “non-immigrants”, which is the approach taken in countries such as Australia, US and Canada.
Thomas was arguing that the current system risks sending the “wrong signals” about whether the UK welcomes international students and academics.
He said he has heard “worrying stories” from abroad: “There is a perception that the UK is putting up barriers and not welcoming students and academics. The reality is there is not a cap on student migration to this country at the moment, but if you go round India and China you would think there was.”
Meanwhile, the British Academy has issued a position statement condemning the inclusion of overseas postgraduate students in the net migration statistics.