Labour is edging towards supporting a removal of international students from the coalition’s net migration targets, an opposition MP has said, in the week that new figures showed a dramatic fall in the number of student visas being issued.
Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central, told a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration on 28 November that there had been “progress” on establishing a political consensus that would allow the government to exempt students from its target to cut net migration to below 100,000 by 2015 without being accused of a U-turn by Labour.
“There might be those who would celebrate a U-turn…[but] we wouldn’t be accusing the government of fiddling the figures in that way,” Mr Blomfield said.
He and a Conservative counterpart, Nadhim Zahawi, called for such a consensus during a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in October.
Mr Zahawi, who also spoke at the APPG session, said that there were signs of an agreement with Labour and of consensus in government, pointing to a new strategy in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that promoted education as an export.
On 29 November the Office for National Statistics revealed that 210,921 study visas had been issued in the year to September 2012, a 26 per cent fall on the previous year.
However, there was a 1 per cent increase in the number of visa applications from prospective university students during the same period.
Alongside other changes, the government has toughened English language requirements for applicants to colleges and ended the automatic option to work in the UK after completing a degree.
Universities UK said that “legitimate university sponsored student numbers are now being affected” by the changes, pointing to figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in November that showed a 0.8 per cent drop in non-EU applicants compared with the previous year.
Shabana Mahmood, the shadow higher education minister, told Times Higher Education that the coalition is “harming the university sector” with its policies but she stopped short of explicitly calling for students to be removed from the 100,000 target.
“Instead of tackling illegal immigration and other areas of genuine public concern,” she said, the coalition had “made promises they show no sign of keeping and are harming the university sector”. “Legitimate international students who want to study in the UK should not be deterred from doing so,” she added.
Speaking at a conference in London on 28 November organised by Study UK, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said that because visa abuse in the college sector had been quelled, it would be wrong of the Home Office to push for a cap on student numbers.
“My view is that we now have got the basis for a grown-up settlement, [an] agreement with the Home Office, that because we have now clamped down on…abuse we can be confident that people coming here are studying genuinely.”
Consequently, “it would be wrong to impose student number controls”, he added.