A Conservative MP has backed calls for the UK government to change its approach to net migration figures, which currently includes overseas students in the target to cut numbers.
Ben Howlett, MP for Bath, exchanged contrasting views with fellow panel member Jo Johnson, the UK universities and science minister, during a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on 4 October.
Asked about his views on international student policy, Mr Howlett said jokingly: “Don’t tell the prime minister.”
Mr Howlett, who has two universities in his constituency and described himself as the Tory MP with most student constituents, said that “to be an open country to international students is a very positive thing. In order to do it, we need to certainly separate out the international immigration figures, that’s for sure.”
Universities UK (UUK), which represents higher education institutions in the country, has long called for overseas students to be removed from the government’s target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. But those calls were resisted by Theresa May during her tenure as home secretary and appear to have met the same response in her time as prime minister.
Later the same day, the conference saw Amber Rudd, the home secretary, outline plans to toughen student visa rules for those seeking to study on “low-quality” courses, while offering support to “the best” universities.
Mr Johnson told the fringe event: “We are open as a country to international students. We’re second in the world in terms of our market share of international students, only behind the US.”
Mr Howlett then asked Mr Johnson a question, about whether the student visa system could change in future, to “save me having to write to you”.
Mr Johnson replied: “We have a system in which there is no cap on the number of international students who can come in…and I don’t see that changing.”
“You heard it here first,” Mr Howlett said.
“It’s a long-standing government policy,” Mr Johnson replied.
The universities and science minister also addressed the issue of Brexit, saying that there was a “huge opportunity” for universities to help address the feeling among many people that they were missing out on the benefits of economic growth.
“There was a correlation between levels of university attendance and the propensity to vote Brexit; there was a correlation between levels of education generally and likelihood to vote for Brexit,” he said.
“Which means there is a huge opportunity for universities to play the part they want to play in widening participation and ensuring that more people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, get a chance to go to university and share in the benefits that a higher education can bring.”
At a separate fringe meeting on 3 October, UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge urged the government to resolve the “most critical urgent issue” arising from Brexit for universities: the “fees and status” of European Union students starting courses in 2017-18 “for year three of their studies”.
She added: “We are calling on the government to clarify that. It can actually be very easily clarified; but so far, they haven’t chosen to do so.”
Ms Dandridge also called on the government to draw up “a thoughtful, coherent, international student and research strategy that aligns our visa rules with what it is we’re trying to achieve with higher education as an export industry. We do not have that at the moment.”
She also warned at the event that the government was “jeopardising the future sustainability and viability” of higher-cost subjects such as science by squeezing their ability to recruit international students.