Government whips will “turn the thumbscrews” on MPs in order to ensure that international students are kept in the UK’s migration targets, a sector expert said, amid growing dissent among Conservatives over the “destructive and “economically illiterate” policy.
The House of Commons will debate the issue after the House of Lords approved a controversial amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would, if passed, reverse the government’s policy on including students in the target to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
The amendment – which was passed by 313 votes to 219 on 13 March – was hailed as a “notable victory” for the higher education sector, which has lobbied for this change for years. Lord Bilimoria, chancellor of the University of Birmingham, told the debate that the current policy represented “economic illiteracy” as it helped to “send out signals that [international students] are not welcome here”.
Several Conservative peers, including former universities minister Lord Willetts, voted against the government to support the amendment, which said that the “secretary of state [for education] shall ensure that no student…be treated for public policy purposes as a long-term migrant”.
However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, predicted that the Lords’ victory would be short-lived, with Tory MPs unlikely to rebel against the government by ratifying the amendment when it comes back to the Commons.
That gloomy forecast comes even though more than 30 Tory MPs reportedly signed a letter to the prime minister this month, which called for the removal of international students from immigration targets, enough to overturn the government’s working majority of 17.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and even UKIP have all indicated that they wish to see a change to the policy, as have senior ministers including chancellor Philip Hammond, foreign secretary Boris Johnson and international trade secretary Liam Fox.
“If there was a free vote in the House of Commons, half the Cabinet would vote for it and it would get through, but I expect the whipping to be very tough on this,” said Mr Hillman, a former special adviser to Lord Willetts.
“The whipping is very light in the Lords, so even my old boss felt able to rebel – in the Commons [whips] will really turn the thumbscrews on MPs, who will be asked to think about their long-term careers.”
Mr Hillman said that the amendment was also unlikely to pass because of its “odd” wording, which puts a duty on the education secretary to “encourage international students to attend higher education providers” and says that international students and staff shall not be subject to “more restrictive immigration controls or conditions”.
If the amendment is rejected, peers would need to consider whether they would continue to fight for the amendment when legislation returns to the Lords.
However, Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central who has co-chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students with Lord Bilimoria, was more optimistic that the amendment would find enough crossbench support to reach the statute books.
“I’m sure that it will find support from MPs of all parties,” said Mr Blomfield. “It provides an opportunity to reverse six years of destructive policies that have damaged our economy and our reputation around the world.”