The government’s forthcoming bill on the post-Brexit immigration regime offers a chance to change the UK’s approach to international students, Conservative MP Nicky Morgan has suggested.
Ms Morgan, the Loughborough MP sacked as education secretary by Theresa May, made the comments at the launch of a report by the Higher Education Commission – where she backed the report’s call for the government to set a target to increase the numbers of international students.
Any amendment on international students in the expected immigration bill would bring a confrontation between Tory backbenchers pushing for change and Ms May, who abolished post-study work visas as home secretary and has continued to insist as prime minister that students should remain in the net migration target.
During the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act through Parliament last year, the Lords passed an amendment to withdraw students from the net migrant target. However, the government opposed the amendment and it did not make it into the legislation.
The prospect of another amendment may be seen by universities as a route to securing that change, or the return of post-study work visas – both rejected in this week’s report by the Migration Advisory Committee on the impact of overseas students in the UK.
“I had hoped, and others had, that this week’s report from the Migration Advisory Committee would act as a catalyst for developing a successful strategy,” Ms Morgan, who is vice-chair of the International Students All-Party Parliamentary Group, told the event in Westminster on 13 September.
“And it is therefore disappointing that it did not recommend removing international students from the government target on net migration and only offered tweaks to the immigration system – which favour some students much more than others – and I believe we should be much more ambitious.”
She called for “a new target, which universities and the government can work together to achieve, one that is to increase the numbers of international students”.
Ms Morgan said that there was “a groundswell of opinion moving in one direction” on international students, urging those in the audience to “keep going, keep lobbying, keep thinking about the parliamentary arithmetic and, you never know, we may well get somewhere”.
Responding to suggestions that removing students from the net migrant target may not be the number one priority in the international student regime, Ms Morgan said that the overseas student issue was “complicated” and “when you’re trying to get [support from] colleagues [in Parliament] who have limited amounts of time, [and] can’t sit there and understand all the nuances” some “simple asks” were required.
If removing students from the net migrant target is “not the simple ask then we need to find another thing that encapsulates [the reform needed] when the White Paper and the bill come before Parliament, to get this over”, she added. “If we try to make it too complicated, it will just get lost among the other demands.”
Ms Morgan also told the event: “If you can think of a silver lining to Brexit, the formation of the Department for International Trade and the need for them to have successful exports they can point to or market; you have in the DIT a new advocate in government for higher education as an export that we didn’t have explicitly maybe two or three years ago.”