A pressure group of modernisers within the Conservative Party, of which David Willetts is president, is to launch a campaign to take international students out of the government’s net migration target ahead of the next election.
University figures and MPs have repeatedly urged the coalition to change its policy – which they fear could be damaging a crucial source of revenue and soft power for the UK – but the campaign by Bright Blue, a thinktank for “liberal conservatism”, would be a direct challenge to the stance from within the Tory party.
With less than a year to the next general election, it is not yet clear whether the Conservatives will stick by their pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” a year in their 2015 manifesto, and if students will be included in the target.
Six parliamentary committees have called on the government to take students out of the migration target, but with the United Kingdom Independence Party forecast by some polls to win the European elections on 22 May, the Conservatives may be wary of any change that could be perceived as a softening of their stance on immigration.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow immigration secretary, has said the Labour Party wants more international students to come to the UK and will consider not including students in the same target as other migrants.
Bright Blue is hoping to attract support from universities, students and other interested bodies such as those that represent business, to influence the policy of all the main political parties after 2015.
Ryan Shorthouse, the thinktank’s director, said that the government should seek to convey “competence” on the issue of immigration by “properly managing our borders at the same time as ensuring businesses and universities can recruit the brightest and best from around the world”. “As a first step, international students should be removed from the government’s net migration target,” he said.
News of the campaign on international students came as Bright Blue last week launched The Modernisers’ Manifesto, a collection of essays from “leading Conservative politicians and opinion formers” about the future direction of the party.
It includes a chapter from Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to Mr Willetts, the universities and science minister.
Mr Hillman, who stressed he was writing in a personal capacity, writes in the booklet that there is a “paucity of alternatives” to tuition fees, which are “here to stay”.
Liam Byrne, the shadow higher education secretary, has said that the party’s “long-term” goal is to introduce a graduate tax.
However, in his essay, Mr Hillman poses three questions about that policy that “no one has been able to solve”.
“How do you cover universities’ costs between abolishing fees and waiting for people to graduate to pay the new tax?” he asks, adding: “How do you ensure the Treasury doesn’t top-slice the tax and spend the proceeds on something else? How do you get the money back from students who emigrate, given you can’t tax people living abroad?”
He declares that the idea that tuition fee hikes change the outcome of national elections “does not stand up” and so university finance “may not be an election issue in 2015”.