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Government faces pressure on student visas

Image: Binod.gr [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Universities and the British Council will join MPs in opposing the government if it confirms its intention to tighten restrictions on international students.

Concern has been growing since the Conservative Party conference in October, when home secretary Amber Rudd announced a consultation on whether to concentrate international students around “high quality courses” at “the best” universities. Immigration minister Robert Goodwill told MPs on 16 November that the consultation would be published shortly. He also confirmed that there would be no return to the post-study work route.

The Home Office’s plans have split the government and drawn the ire of influential organisations such as the British Council. Universities minister Jo Johnson, who is understood to be concerned about the consultation, has said there will be “no cap” on international student numbers.

Rebecca Hughes, the British Council’s director for education, has said that the organisation’s consultation response would call for the post-study work visa to be reinstated. Hughes has also urged the government to remove students from net migration targets, and to do more to communicate the idea that excellent universities exist everywhere.

“The situation is making us think differently about how we promote ourselves as a study destination, how we support transnational education, and how we tell good stories about the truth of the visa situation and myths around it,” she said.

The House of Commons debate was called by the Scottish National Party’s immigration spokesman Stuart McDonald. He told Research Fortnight that there was a perception among MPs that “with Theresa May in Number 10 it’s almost as though the Home Office is taking control of government”. He urged MPs to “build pressure on government to rethink its strategy”, particularly on including students in the net migration target, which he thought was taking precedence over the interests of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for Education.

Other MPs are making their voices heard through the higher education and research bill. Labour MP Paul Blomfield and John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, have tabled an amendment that would stop the government if it decides to link international student recruitment to Teaching Excellence Framework results.

Meanwhile, Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said that restricting student visas to “top quality” courses would undermine the work of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which certifies the quality of all UK university courses. “It would be a shame if government implies there is a problem with quality where the evidence doesn’t back that up,” she said.

Stern said that the government’s “brightest and best” rhetoric undermined universities outside the Russell Group, and added that the government’s policy of differential visa regimes for different countries carried risks. “Sometimes I find that countries feel it an insult if another country has a better deal than they do. In India, they’re very aware of the deal that Chinese visitors have,” she said.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight