The finding comes in a survey of Conservative candidates for the 2015 general election – excluding sitting MPs – by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Nick Hillman, the Hepi director and former special adviser to David Willetts, said all three main political parties should commit to removing international students from any targets to reduce net migration in their 2015 election manifestoes, while the Home Office should be obliged to share responsibility for the area with other government departments.
The survey found that 78 per cent of Conservative candidates think international students should be excluded from any target for reducing migration; and that 69 per cent think the UK should aim to recruit all legitimate international students, not just the brightest and best.
But it also found that 88 per cent of Tory candidates think international students should not automatically be allowed to stay in the UK to work after their studies for a time-limited period – the post-study work option which universities want revived.
Sixty-eight candidates were asked to respond and 18 did so.
Nick Hillman, the Hepi director and former special adviser to David Willetts, said: “The Home Office’s approach to foreign students is not just out of line with voters, it is apparently out of line even with the Conservatives’ own election candidates.”
He added that the “whole university sector must redouble its efforts to explain the benefits that post-study work can offer”.
Mr Hillman also identified “three practical things that could be done now” to address the situation on international students, the first being a pledge from all three political parties to take them out of migration targets.
The second was that politicians “should portray any necessary rules on international students as part of a wider strategy to strengthen protection for international students, rather than as further reasons for people to stay away”.
And the third was that “the Home Office should be obliged to share responsibility for student migration with other government departments, so that it becomes more than a numbers game – the Treasury and the Foreign Office know the issue is also about trade and the UK’s soft power and they should be at the table every time new rules are discussed”.
Mr Hillman added: “As a nation, we’re as good at education as we are at making things. But we don’t put artificial barriers on manufacturers’ exports and we shouldn’t put any in the way of legitimate students who could contribute to the UK by studying in our world-class higher education system.”
The results of the survey come just days after the Home Office suspended the visa sponsorship licences of one university and 57 private colleges in the wake of an investigation into falsified English language tests.