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Sunak criticised for ‘arrogant’ student immigration boast

Image: Number 10 [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Prime minister faces backlash after celebrating the restriction of international students’ rights

​​Prime minister Rishi Sunak has been slammed for framing a crackdown on visas for students’ dependents as his government “delivering for the British people”.

In his first post of 2024 on X, formerly Twitter, Sunak referenced restrictions limiting the number of family members who can travel to the UK with international students.

“From today the majority of foreign university students cannot bring family members to the UK,” the prime minister said. “In 2024 we’re already delivering for the British people.”

Sunak himself was a foreign student at Harvard in the US, where he earned an MBA in 2006.

Richard Evans, regius professor emeritus of history at the University of Cambridge, described the policy as “short-sighted and arrogant”.

“It affects, above all, international graduate students in their mid to late 20s, many with families,” he said. “Research-intensive universities depend heavily on them for income since they can charge economic fees for them, unlike for undergraduates.”

‘Terrible for our global position’

Sunak’s message relates to proposals that came into force on 1 January, which mean international students—with the exception of those on postgraduate research courses—will not be permitted to bring dependents with them to the UK.

The tone of his message drew criticism from experts who are concerned the UK is looking like a less attractive destination for international students, which could have serious consequences for university finances. Many institutions rely on overseas students, who typically pay much higher tuition fees, to balance the books and cross-subsidise expensive research.

“The UK’s higher education sector is one of our biggest soft power assets globally,” said Evie Aspinall, director of the British Foreign Policy Group research institute. “Policies that discourage foreign students from UK education [are] terrible for our global position and for the financial stability of a key part of the UK economy.”

‘Another own goal’

Amir Lebdioui, associate professor of the political economy of development at the University of Oxford, said government immigration policy was “making UK academia less attractive to foreign students and global talents”.

“Congratulations on another own goal,” he said.

According to Ucas end-of-cycle data for 2023, total recruitment of international students by UK institutions—including those from both the EU and the rest of the world—has fallen 3 per cent, from 73,820 in 2022 to 71,570.

Figures from Universities UK suggest a single year group of international students contributes a total of £41 billion to the UK economy each year.

Michael Kofoed, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, described higher education as “one of the West’s greatest exports”.

“We have a comparative advantage in ideas and research and a lot to offer the world,” he said. “The UK blocking foreign students from bringing their families with them is incredibly poor policy.”