Conservative backbenchers have confirmed that they are willing to rebel against the UK government by voting to remove students from its target to reduce net migration, with the peer behind the plan detecting “substantial” Tory support.
However, any deal the government offers to stave off a potential rebellion could ultimately be more significant than the legislative amendment that has reinvigorated the debate.
Speaking before prime minister Theresa May's announcement of plans for a snap general election on June 8, Tory MPs and sector leaders said that they wanted the government to commit to basing policy on more accurate student migration data, and to drop plans to differentiate the visa regime for universities according to their “quality”.
Matters will come to a head when the Higher Education and Research Bill returns to the House of Commons, expected to be later this month, and the government attempts to overturn changes agreed by the House of Lords.
The amendment proposed by crossbench peer Lord Hannay of Chiswick, which states that no student shall “be treated for public policy purposes as a long term migrant to the UK, for the duration of their studies”, is expected to be one of the key battlegrounds.
At present, the government includes overseas students in net migration figures and in its goal to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, which universities fear creates an incentive for the government to drive down non-European Union student numbers.
With the government’s working majority standing at just 17 and opposition parties thought likely to back the Hannay amendment, a Tory backbench rebellion could severely embarrass Ms May.
Nicky Morgan, the former Tory education secretary who now sits on the backbenches, told Times Higher Education that “at the moment I’m minded to back the Hannay amendment”.
“I think our current approach is sending out a signal to overseas students that they aren’t welcome here,” she added. “As higher education is one of our most successful exports and important for our local economies – Loughborough University is the largest employer in my constituency – I don’t think that is a message that a global, outward-looking Britain wants to send to the rest of the world.”
Lord Hannay said he believed that there is “substantial Conservative support for not rejecting the amendment”.
Other potential backers include Ben Howlett, the MP for Bath, who said that he thought the Hannay amendment was “pretty reasonable”.
He added that particularly following the Brexit vote, the UK “should be reaching out to as many international students as possible”.
“If that means taking them out of the overall immigration figures then, absolutely, I 100 per cent back that,” Mr Howlett said. “And I think pretty much most of my colleagues do as well.”
Sector figures are sceptical that enough Tories will defy the whips to pass the Hannay amendment.
But if the government, as part of a deal for potential rebels, were to commit to making no further overseas student policy decisions until better exit data is compiled – and the Office for National Statistics is already reviewing the measurement of student migration – many in the sector would see this as a victory.
Universities have long argued that the figures on student “overstayers” used by the Home Office as the basis for its policy, from International Passenger Survey data on those entering and leaving the UK, are inaccurate.
The sector would also regard it as progress if the government agreed to abandon plans, announced by home secretary Amber Rudd last year, to introduce tougher rules for overseas students coming to Britain to study “low quality” courses, instead prioritising the “best” universities.