Former universities minister Jo Johnson has claimed that his bid to force the UK government to reintroduce two-year post-study work visas has a “very, very good” chance of success, after it attracted significant cross-party support.
The amendment to the immigration bill proposed by Mr Johnson and Labour MP Paul Blomfield counts among its supporters on the Conservative benches Sam Gyimah, Mr Johnson’s successor as universities minister, former education secretaries Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening, and David Davis, the ex-Brexit secretary.
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 Abbot, while Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran and Carol Monaghan, her counterpart in the Scottish National Party, are also on board.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Johnson said that, assuming that the immigration bill came back to the Commons, the proposed amendment had a “very, very good” chance of success.
“We have cross-party support from 10 select committee chairs now,” he said. “We obviously need to get the government to recognise that it’s unstoppable.
“We have over two dozen Conservative MPs backing it plus the DUP, so the important thing is that the government realises that Parliament wants a policy environment that recognises international students as the great national asset that they are.”
The amendment would restore the two-year post-study work visas abolished by Ms May when she was home secretary in 2012 and which she has consistently opposed being reintroduced since she became prime minister. It also seeks to bar any future government from capping overseas student numbers – which count towards the net migration target – without parliamentary approval.
“There is a strong recognition across Parliament that international students need to be seen as a great asset to the country, not simply as a negative number in the net migration statistics,” Mr Johnson said.
The legislation that the clause would amend – 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 for its report stage and third reading at a date yet to be announced.
The amendment’s backers believe that, since the bill will erase the distinction between nationals of the European Economic Area (EEA) and beyond, all non-UK students would benefit from the provisions of the new clause, if it is passed.
Mr Blomfield, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, said that the “breadth and depth of support” suggests that “this will translate into the amendment being approved when the bill comes back”.
“The sensible thing” for Ms May to do “would be to recognise the support that is there and embrace it and not seek to oppose it”, Mr Blomfield said.
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 – opposed the amendment, and it did not make it on to the statute book.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said Mr Johnson and Mr Blomfield had been “very skilful in building a cross-party alliance”.
“If I was sitting in No 10, I would be worried that I was on course to lose an important vote,” he said.
While government whips could attempt to thwart the amendment’s progress, “parliamentary discipline has broken down a bit in recent years, partly because the government doesn’t have a majority, so those sorts of threats and games are less powerful than they have been in the past”, added Mr Hillman, a special adviser to Lord Willetts during his time as universities minister.
Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said he believed that Ms May would “dig her heels in and try and oppose the amendment, and she will probably be more confident in the political and electoral context of the moment that she has a good chance of knocking it back”.
Professor Westwood highlighted that a lot of MPs did not want to “appear to be lenient in any area of immigration policy”.
The debate may be given added urgency following reports that the government plans to charge EU students at English universities the same tuition fees as other international students from 2021-22. The move, first reported by Buzzfeed, could lead to a significant drop in recruitment from the Continent.
Mr Johnson has 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, to 600,000, by 2030, unless it matched the immigration regimes being offered by competitor nations.
Print headline: Bid for post-study work visa has a ‘very good’ chance
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