The UK higher education sector needs to stop “over-obsessing” about the “ridiculous process argument” of whether overseas students are included in targets on net migration, a former immigration minister has said.
Mark Harper, a minister in the Home Office from 2012 to 2014, when there was a major crackdown on what was deemed to be “abuse” of the student visa system, said that it “served nobody” if the numbers of people coming to the country to study were not counted.
However, Mr Harper, who was speaking at the launch of a report for the Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan that estimated that overseas students are worth 10 times more to the UK economy than they cost, said that he was personally “relaxed” if students made up a “big chunk” of net migration.
His comments follow reports in the past few weeks that Theresa May, the prime minister, who was in charge of the Home Office when Mr Harper was immigration minister, has become increasingly isolated over her resistance to removing students from the net migration figures. The government has a long-standing target to cut net migration to the tens of thousands.
“I think this is an issue that people over-obsess about [because] it is a net number. Students arrive and students leave…so if the sector doesn’t grow, then they make no contribution at all to the net migration target,” Mr Harper said.
If student numbers were growing, then the lag in those arriving and those leaving did contribute to net migration, but there was then a “sensible question to have about how much of our migration should be accounted for by international students, and I am very relaxed about that being quite a big chunk of it, actually”, Mr Harper said.
“That should be the debate that we have, not pretending [international students] don’t exist and don’t count them,” he continued. “Obsessing about this doesn’t get us very far.”
Mr Harper added: “If you don’t count something, my view is the risk is that you start getting abuse coming back into the system. That serves nobody at all.”
Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, said at the event that he thought it was possible to “square the circle” by counting overseas students but excluding them from immigration targets.
“While there is the obsession about net migration [in the UK], then it will only cause a political problem if we are successful in recruiting more international students because of the lag factor,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Harper acknowledged that the change to post-study work rules during the Conservative-led coalition government had been poorly communicated to the rest of the world, leading to damaging headlines overseas about the UK’s openness to international students.
While there was indeed a post-study work route for overseas graduates – who can switch to a skilled worker visa if they find a job above a certain salary threshold – “we have done a rubbish job at explaining what our offer is”, he said.