Appearing before peers yesterday, Mark Harper also admitted the government had failed to get its messaging right on changes to post-study work for overseas students – but repeated his opposition to taking students out of the net migration figures.
Mr Harper appeared to suggest that public criticism of the Home Office’s policies by universities had alarmed potential overseas students about coming to study in the UK.
He told the House of Lords Soft Power and the UK’s Influence Committee: “I’ve had this conversation with education providers and universities.
“It is not helpful if they say everything is dreadful, publicly, and then they sound surprised that people listen to the fact they have said everything is dreadful and think that it is. When the evidence is that it actually isn’t.”
Mr Harper said there was “growth in the number of [overseas] students coming to universities” in the UK.
Returning to the theme later in the session, he said of conversations with the “university sector”: “It is not very helpful if the first place you go for criticism is having a dialogue through the pages of newspapers and the TV. Because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy for bad news.”
However, Mr Harper said that relations between the Home Office and universities were now improved and “we have some of these discussions privately”, while “having a very positive message for the outside world”.
The minister also discussed the end of the previous post-study arrangements in April 2012, now replaced by a requirement for overseas graduates to have the offer of a graduate level job paying over £20,000 if they wish to stay in the UK.
“I think it is fair to say we did a better job in communicating the end of the previous post-study work arrangements than we did in communicating what were very good arrangements that replaced them,” said Mr Harper.
Universities UK has lobbied the government to withdraw overseas students from its target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015, which it believes would spare the sector from any negative impact from the toughening of the immigration regime.
But Mr Harper said that when it came to student visas “there wouldn’t be a different policy whether or not you counted the numbers”.
Overseas students “have an impact on public services” and are “no more or less migrants than people who come here to work”, he added.
The minister also said that “all of our overseas competitors count students as migrants in their statistics”.