James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, has been criticised as “complacent” and “silly” after dismissing claims that government immigration policy is behind dramatic falls in the number of Indian students heading for UK universities.
In a speech at a conference on student visas hosted by the Home Affairs Committee and Regent’s University London on 23 October, the minister again rejected long-standing calls to remove students from the government’s net migration target.
And he addressed the fall in the number of Indian students starting courses at UK universities, which halved from 24,000 to 12,000 in the two years to 2012-13. The minister said: “Let me ask you this – how can this decrease be the result of our immigration reforms, when that same policy has overseen almost a doubling of Chinese student numbers over the last five years?”
One sector figure said it was “disappointing that the minister has not been briefed on the difference between the Chinese and Indian markets or the impact of the changes to the post-study work route”. The closure in 2012 of the visa route was seen by universities as deterring Indian students, in particular, from coming to the UK.
Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former Labour higher education minister, was scheduled to address Mr Brokenshire’s comments at a meeting between Universities UK and parliamentarians on 28 October. He was expected to say on the India issue: “I am concerned at the complacency of the minister’s response…Government must accept responsibility and work with the sector to repair this.”
Mr Brokenshire also addressed the fall in the overall number of non-European Union student numbers at UK universities in 2012-13 – the first drop since records began in 1994-95.
“Some people have alleged that by driving out immigration abuse, our reforms have hampered international student recruitment to universities. The evidence does not support this,” the minister said.
“Whilst enrolment data produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency do show that non-EU entrants decreased by less than 1 per cent in 2011-12 and by 1 per cent in 2012-13, much greater decreases were seen for UK entrants (3 per cent and 15 per cent) and EU entrants (1 per cent and 13 per cent) over both these years. So, the fall is part of a wider trend facing our universities,” he added.
Tuition fees for home and EU students were trebled to £9,000 in 2012-13, severely affecting recruitment.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “It is silly to claim that because applications are up from some countries, there are no problems. If that’s what officials think, they should urgently visit Delhi to speak to the Indian authorities – or just go online to read some of the Indian press.
“It is just as silly to say there are no problems because the number of home and EU students declined by more than the number of international students in 2012-13. The increase in tuition fees for home and EU students in that year makes it the worst possible baseline for any comparison of that sort.”
Mr Hillman added that the sector needs “a broader discussion” on student visas within government “so that the Foreign Office and Treasury set some of the terms of debate and not just the Home Office”.