Nearly three-quarters of the British public would like to see the same number or more of overseas students coming to the UK, according to a poll carried out for Universities UK.
The poll of more than 4,000 people, conducted by ComRes, found that 73 per cent wanted international student numbers maintained or increased after “discovering the contribution they make to the economy and the jobs they generate”, said UUK.
Twenty-four per cent of those questioned said that they wanted to see international student numbers increase, while 49 per cent wanted to see numbers stay the same.
UUK’s poll comes ahead of a key vote by MPs on an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would stop overseas students being classed by the government as long-term migrants.
The amendment would thus remove students from the government’s target to reduce net migration, which UUK and many MPs believe would remove existing pressure to reduce overseas student numbers.
As home secretary and now as prime minister, Theresa May has refused to change course and remove students from the target.
UUK’s poll found that just 26 per cent of those questioned think of international students as immigrants “when thinking about government immigration policy”.
The survey also found that 64 per cent think that international students have a positive impact on the local economies of the towns and cities in which they study, while 61 per cent believe that international students also have a valuable social and cultural impact on university towns and cities, UUK said.
And 75 per cent believe that international students should be allowed to work in the UK for a fixed period after they have graduated.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, Universities UK president and University of Kent vice-chancellor, said: “It is clear that the British public do not see international students as long-term migrants, but as valuable, temporary visitors. They come to the UK, study for a period, then the vast majority return home.”
She added: “It is clear that the positive economic impact of international students extends to all corners of the UK, and not only to London or one or two large cities.”
But Dame Julia warned that “while the UK government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers, adding to the perception that they are not welcome here”.
The number of non-European Union first-year students enrolling at UK universities fell by 1 per cent in 2015-16, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency figures.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, last year pledged to introduce tougher rules for overseas students coming to Britain to study “low-quality” courses, instead prioritising the “best” universities. However, a promised consultation on those plans is yet to emerge.
Dame Julia said: “If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK. As the UK prepares to exit the EU, it is more important than ever that we project a welcoming message to talented people from across the world.”
Lord Hannay of Chiswick’s amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill removing students from the net migrant target, already passed in the House of Lords, will come under consideration when the bill returns to the House of Commons, likely to be later this month.