Theresa May has told universities in a speech to the Conservative Party conference that she “doesn’t care” what their “lobbyists” say on overseas students.
The home secretary made the comments in relation to international students not returning to their home countries after the expiry of visas as she insisted that the rules needed to be “enforced”.
Her speech came as a report in today’s Times suggested that David Cameron has “abandoned support” for Ms May on her insistence that overseas students continue to be included in the government’s net migrant target.
Ms May’s speech did not mention overseas students in the context of the net migrant count, but she did deliver criticism of the sector on those overstaying their visas.
The UK welcomed the brightest students from around the world, she said.
“But the fact is too many are not returning home as soon as their visas run out,” she continued.
“I don’t care what the university lobbyists say. The rules must be enforced. Students, yes; overstayers, no.”
There has been speculation from some in the sector that the Home Office wants universities to take over responsibility for ensuring that graduates leave the country once their courses are finished.
And there are also suggestions that if the government is preparing for an announcement that students will be removed from the net migrant count, then Ms May will exact a heavy price on other measures of student visa tightening in return.
Responding to Ms May’s speech, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said that the organisation agreed “care must be taken” to ensure students are genuine and said institutions “take their responsibilities as sponsors very seriously”.
But she added: “While genuine international students in the UK continue to be caught up in efforts to bear down on immigration, it will feed the perception internationally that the UK is closed for business and does not welcome students.
“As the foreign secretary suggested last month, one step the government could take would be to remove international students from their net migration target.
“International students and staff make an enormous contribution to the UK, academically, culturally and economically. Reducing the number of genuine international students would have a substantial and negative impact on towns and cities across the UK, on businesses, jobs and on our world-class universities.”