Former universities minister Jo Johnson has attracted significant cross-party support for his bid to force the UK government to reintroduce two-year post-study work visas – suggesting that it has a strong chance of success.
The amendment to the immigration bill, which also seeks to bar any future government from capping overseas student numbers without parliamentary approval, was proposed on 26 April by Mr Johnson and Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP who is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Students.
Its supporters on the Conservative benches include Sam Gyimah, Mr Johnson’s successor as universities minister, former education secretaries Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening, and David Davis, the ex-Brexit secretary. Nine select committee chairs who have signed the clause include three Tories: Ms Morgan (Treasury) plus Robert Halfon (education) and Tom Tugendhat (foreign affairs).
The amendment has also attracted key backing from the Democratic Unionist Party, which Prime Minister Theresa May relies on for a parliamentary majority: DUP education spokesman Paul Girvan and international trade spokeswoman Emma Little-Pengelly are among the signatories.
On the Labour side, the supporters include shadow education secretary Angela Rayner and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, while Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran and Carol Monaghan, her counterpart in the Scottish National Party, are also on board.
The formidable alliance raises questions over Ms May’s ability to resist a liberalisation of the student immigration regime that she has long opposed both as home secretary and in No 10.
During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act through Parliament in 2017, the House of Lords passed an amendment to withdraw students from the net migrant target. However, the government – which then had a majority, with Mr Johnson as minister – opposed the amendment and it did not make it on to the statute book.
The new legislation – the immigration and social security coordination (EU withdrawal) bill – sets out the government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration system, including the end of free movement with the European Union. It is due to return to the Commons at a date yet to be announced.
The amendment would restore the two-year post-study work visas abolished by Ms May as home secretary in 2012, and require ministers to get the backing of MPs if they wanted to introduce any cap on foreign student numbers.
The amendment’s backers believe that, since the bill will erase the distinction between nationals of the European Economic Area and beyond, all non-UK students would benefit from the provisions of the new clause, if it is passed.
Mr Johnson warned that the UK had “no chance” of hitting the target set in the government’s new international education strategy of increasing foreign student numbers by 30 per cent by 2030, to 600,000, unless it adopted a “smarter approach”.
Mr Johnson said that the UK was on track to miss its old target of increasing education exports to £30 billion by 2020 by about £7 billion. The new target, for 2030, is £35 billion.
“The difference students make to long-term net migration is small. The difference our new clause will make to our universities, to local economies and to Britain’s global reach will be highly significant,” Mr Johnson said. “As we reshape our immigration policy for the future, we must not miss this opportunity.”
Other select committee chairs backing the amendment include Labour’s Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Hillary Benn and Meg Hillier, Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, and the SNP’s Angus MacNeil.