Giving the vice-chancellor’s annual oration to the institution, Andrew Hamilton questioned the political decisions that have led to a decline in the number of students coming to the UK from India in particular.
He said that current immigration policy is harming the country’s interests, adding that the public do not think of students when they think about migration.
This is now “beginning to dawn across the political spectrum”, which is good news ahead of the general election, he said.
Professor Hamilton said that UK higher education is “an attractive commodity in the world market” and he questioned why in a time of “continued economic constraint” there was a limit on “one of our most effective generators of overseas revenue”.
He added: “Wherever I travel in the world, particularly in China and India, one question persists. Why has the UK adopted a visa system so hostile to student entry? I do my best to answer but, frankly, the question baffles me as well.
“For the first time in decades, the number of international students at our universities has dropped, most markedly from India. Why are we doing this to them – and to ourselves?”
He said that research from Oxford’s Migration Observatory found that overseas student numbers and immigration issues are not linked in the minds of the public.
“Study is the least frequent answer given when the public are asked what they consider the motives for migration to be. Student migration simply isn’t an issue for them,” Professor Hamilton said.
The Oxford vice-chancellor called for political parties to use research-based evidence to form their immigration election policies, and also argued for more public investment in universities.
The latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggest that public spending in higher education is 0.9 per cent of GDP, which is below the OECD average and among the lowest in Europe. Investment in research and development is “equally dismaying”, he added.
“Underinvestment in higher education is a false economy,” Professor Hamilton said. “Private investment should complement government research funding, and not be perceived as an alternative.”