Speaking at a debate in Westminster on 20 March, Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migration Watch UK, said the proposal by Universities UK to create a net migration count that excluded students from outside the European Union was unrealistic.
At present, overseas students are included in net migration figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
The government has pledged to reduce this count to the “tens of thousands” by 2015. But in 2010, net migration to the UK was 252,000 – the highest number on record.
Of 591,000 immigrants, 238,000 arrived to study at universities, colleges and schools. UUK is lobbying the government to remove students from the official tally, arguing that they are only temporary residents.
However, Sir Andrew dismissed UUK’s call for an alternative measure of immigration.
“It would destroy the credibility of government policy,” he said, adding that 60 per cent of those using the “points-based” system for immigration were students.
“If you take them out, you reduce the figures to nonsense.
“We have 500,000 non-EU students here. They come without any interviews, and there is no check on their departure.
“We have no idea of how many students come here and stay on. We have a very weak system.”
Other speakers at the conference included Eric Thomas, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, who said that only 2 per cent of university students break the terms of their entry into the UK.
He said the international student market was currently worth about £5 billion a year, according to the Department for Business, Industry and Skills, and was set to rise to £15 billion over the next decade.
But David Goodhart, director of the thinktank Demos, said the number of foreign students leaving higher education to join the UK’s general workforce was a problem.
“It is this leakage which is the issue here,” he said.
He also questioned the theory that welcoming more international students would lead to high export earnings in the future.
“We have this ill thought-out, happy-clappy view that the more people we have here [from abroad], the better our exports will be.
“The biggest ethnic minority in Britain is Indians, but our exports to India are miserable. Belgium has higher exports to India than we do.”