Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, confirmed the party’s policy in a speech at the Universities UK annual conference last night.
Labour has previously called on the government to take students out of the net migrant target, but has not previously confirmed outright that this would be its own policy.
Mr Byrne attacked Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, for refusing to back UUK’s long-standing calls for international students to be removed from the net migration target.
At a press briefing at the UUK conference on 9 September, Times Higher Education questioned Mr Clark on whether he supported the move – reportedly backed in private by his predecessor David Willetts. But Mr Clark said the UK’s current migration measures conform to international standards and “you can’t opt in and opt out of it”.
UUK believes taking students out of the net migrant target would spare universities from the effects of the government’s commitment to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.
Mr Byrne gave his speech in the section of the UUK conference, which the organisation holds behind closed doors.
But in a section of the speech released by the shadow minister, he said: “Our ambition is simple: world-class higher education and a world-class higher education system. But to be world class, you have to welcome the world’s best minds. Not ban them, because somehow you’re ‘full’.
“Greg Clark could have jumped free of this nonsense last night and he didn’t.
“He’s trapped in a mind-set that means, as NUS [the National Union of Students] discovered, 51 per cent of students outside Europe believe this UK government is either ‘not welcoming’ or ‘not at all welcoming’ towards international students.
“What a triumph it’s been. Delivering for the first time in 29 years a fall in foreign students enrolling here.”
Mr Byrne continued: “No one wants open-door immigration. We need systems that work for all by tackling exploitation to stop people being undercut.
“But legitimate overseas students boost not burden our economy; they enrich not endanger our future.
“And that’s why Labour would remove legitimate international students from the net migration target.”