With the Lords’ proposed amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill last week, the controversial inclusion of international students in net migration measures has been bumped back into the political spotlight.
Proposed Amendment 150 stipulates that students will not “be treated for public policy purposes as a long-term migrant to the UK”, effectively exempting international students from the government’s efforts to bring net migration below 100,000.
Ever since the target’s introduction in the Conservatives’ 2010 election manifesto, David Cameron and now Theresa May have resisted all calls to remove international students from net migration statistics for fear of accusations of fiddling the figures. The recent public flogging of Philip Hammond for his attempt to contravene a manifesto pledge not to raise National Insurance contributions (for the self-employed) will only entrench May’s resistance to turning, but scapegoating the House of Lords and “submitting to compromise” could be the face-saving justification the prime minister needs to escape the corner into which the Tories have painted themselves.
Evidence abounds for the harm done by including international students in net migration figures and for the consequent hostility of policy.
Most recently, Universities UK has valued the contribution made by international students to the economy at £25.8 billion for 2014-15 (which is equivalent to £400 for every person in the country). In the uncertainty of a post-Brexit economy, international education is an intensely valuable export. Contrast the value with May’s fawning to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in order to secure a dubious deal to develop military jets for the authoritarian ruler for £100 million (or £1.50 per person).
Even before the European Union referendum, parts of the government recognised the importance of international education. In 2015, Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, announced a target to increase education “exports” from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020.
But the message hasn’t got through to leadership, and the consequences go beyond mere missed opportunities for growth. In October, home secretary Amber Rudd announced a crackdown on international students, and Home Office plans have modelled a cut from 300,000 to 170,000 incoming students a year. That would represent a hit of £11.2 billion a year.
Ironically, net immigration turns out to be a rather feeble justification for all this damage. At any level of international student intake, a “one-in-one-out” system would yield a net immigration impact of squarely nil. Had Cameron and May nurtured student immigration numbers in years when the country would inevitably steamroller past the 100,000 target regardless, and then held numbers at a consistent high level, they could have had their cake and eaten it.
While economic self-harm in the pursuit of the democratic mandate might appear justified after the Brexit result, an October 2016 opinion poll shows that the implied insularism underlying our withdrawal does not extend to international students. The poll for Universities UK, which surveyed 2,000 British adults, showed that only a quarter (24 per cent) of the country considers international students to be immigrants, and 75 per cent of those professing an opinion wanted international student numbers to stay the same or increase.
Meanwhile, even the UK Independence Party wants to remove international students from net migration figures, per party policy before the 2015 election.
Far from enacting the democratic mandate, the evidence shows very strong support for international students. In these divisive times, a receptive attitude to international students appears to be a policy that can unite, facilitating international outreach for the Left and servicing the greed and financial insecurity of the Right and Left.
The government therefore stands alone as an obstacle to the good of the country, apparently on grounds of party interests alone. The Lords offer a way to let Theresa May off the hook, and for everyone’s sake we should hope she takes it.
Huw Owen is a tax accountant at the University of Leeds.