Paul Uppal, parliamentary private secretary to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, spoke at a fringe event at the Conservative conference in Manchester today.
His remarks suggest the Home Office - which is determined to reduce immigration, including students - has won out over the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Mr Willetts and Vince Cable, the business secretary, would like to see overseas students withdrawn from the net migration figures, to spare universities negative effects from the government’s drive to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015.
“We’re not going to, any time soon – if we have a real, honest, candid conversation – extricate student numbers from the immigration figures. That’s the reality of where we are,” Mr Uppal told the fringe event, hosted by Million+ and the National Union of Students.
The MP for Wolverhampton South West added: “We have a BIS ministers’ meeting every Tuesday. And this discussion, this issue, is invariably number one or number two on the things we talk about. We are painfully aware of what is at stake.”
Bill Rammell, the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor, another panel member, said: “There is a real problem with coherence within government on this issue.”
Mr Rammell, a former higher education minister under Labour, suggested that while BIS and Number 10 were “uniformly positive” on the need to attract overseas students, it was “completely different” with the Home Office.
“And I just think, who’s running the government?” he asked. “Who’s really speaking loudly and clearly for the benefit of international students? What they bring to our universities and what they bring to the country.”
In her speech to the conference this afternoon, Ms May boasted that student visas “which were abused on an industrial scale under Labour, are…down by a third”.
The Home Secretary continued: “Many of these people weren’t students at all. Such was the scale of abuse under Labour, we’ve cut the number of student visas issued each year by more than 115,000.”
Ms May did not mention the need to attract the “best and brightest” overseas students or to sustain the UK’s “world-class universities” – phrases she had used in the past that appeared to signal a more conciliatory stance towards higher education.