Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, also accused politicians of making “cheap, pathetic gestures” on immigration when he spoke at a conference on student visa policy, hosted by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee and Regent’s University London.
Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the committee, which issued a report in 2011 calling for students to be withdrawn from net migration figures, told the conference that the committee would be issuing a fresh report on student visas before the election.
Mr Walker told the conference that the UK was no longer a great defence or economic power but was “a great, possibly even the greatest, intellectual power”. That was “down to the university sector of this country and to its openness to international influence”, he added.
He said that at the recent Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, he had heard Prime Minister David Cameron say there was “no cap” on the number of international students coming to the UK. But later, at a conference dinner, Mr Walker had sat next to a Russell Group deputy vice-chancellor who told him that 25 potential students from Nigeria had had their visa applications refused.
Their applications “had been turned down by the local UK immigration official in Nigeria because he wasn’t satisfied that the course was genuine: a top-flight, Russell Group university”, said Mr Walker.
He added that he was concerned by the “damage it does to British influence and attitudes to this country globally that 25 motivated future leaders from Nigeria are denied entry to this country on the whim of a bureaucrat”.
And he said: “I’m appalled when politicians make cheap, pathetic gestures to cater to what they think is public opinion. I would like to see politicians closing up the gap between perception and reality and telling voters across this country the truth about immigration.”
Making an apparent reference to the government’s target to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”, Mr Walker also said: “I’m appalled that universities end up being the victims of political point-scoring and a meaningless gesture that was made before the last election without any thought by the politicians involved when in reality, students are the immigrants that the population of the United Kingdom are least concerned about.”
Vivienne Stern, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, told the conference that British universities risked becoming “dangerously unbalanced” as student numbers from India fell while reliance on Chinese student recruitment increased.
“I think many universities worry that we are seeking to create a truly international environment in universities and that unless we have a balance of students from around the world, we won’t achieve that,” she said.
Aldywn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London, which draws around 50 per cent of its students from non-EU countries, said international student recruitment was “too much a political issue” in the UK.