Migration advisory committee says number of international students could be increased. British universities and business have criticised the government’s chief migration advisers for “missed opportunities” in a long-awaited report on international students. The independent migration advisory committee (MAC) has recommended keeping foreign students in the net migration statistics and, while it calls for the government to make it easier for some foreign students to access work after study, it stopped short of recommending a post-study work visa.
Theresa May has long rejected demands to remove students from the Tories net migration target of 100,000 and the reports conclusions will be seen by some as a vindication of her stance.
But education groups and business representatives expressed disappointment at the recommendations.
Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, said: “While the report recognises the enormous contribution international students make to life in the UK, we are disappointed with its main recommendations.
“We agree that the government and the sector should continue to work together to grow the number of international students, but growth will only be possible if we have an immigration system that encourages talented international students to choose the UK.”
Prof Beer adds: “While the UK continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its net migration target, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers. This adds to the perception that they are not welcome here.”
Jasmine Whitbread, the chief executive of the business group London First, said: “The MAC has recognised that international students are a boon to the economy, contributing £2.3bn each year in the capital alone.
“With firms struggling to fill skills gaps and vacancies outstripping the people available to fill them, it is economic madness to send these talented youngsters packing as soon as their studies are over.
“Thats why the government should bring back a post-study work visa, take students out of the net migration target completely, and better still, scrap it.”
A spokeswoman for the British Chambers of Commerce said: “Business communities around the UK will be bitterly disappointed not to see support for the removal of overseas students from the immigration statistics. We have been calling for the removal of these students from the immigration figures for a long time, as the vast majority go home after completing their courses.
“Its time to scrap the caps and arbitrary numerical targets. Its one thing to control migration, but quite another to use arbitrary mechanisms that deny businesses, universities and public sector employers the people they need to address immediate skills gaps.”
James Pitman, of Destination for Education, a coalition of international education providers, said: “This report is a huge missed opportunity to strengthen international education in the UK. The committee acknowledges the sector will be disappointed. We are.
“We had hoped the committee would set out meaningful recommendations to help the UK recover market share. But maintaining the status quo will do nothing to restore Britains leadership in education exports. Our international competitors will continue to outperform us.”
The committee said there was scope to increase the number of international students in the UK and recommended not introducing a cap.
Amber Rudd, the then home secretary, when commissioning the report last year, said the government wanted to keep the door open to “genuine” students but would crack down on the abuse of visas by poor-quality institutions.
The report, published on Tuesday, rebuked the government for sending “mixed messages” about international students.
In his foreword, the MAC chairman, Prof Alan Manning, said: “When engaging with the sector, some seemed to be concerned the government had plans to introduce a cap.
“Many do not trust the government: when the commissioning letter also wrote there is no limit on the number of genuine international students, they may wonder what the phrase genuine means.
“What the government means and what many in the sector think the
government means are not aligned.”
The report later adds: “We do think it would be helpful if the government avoided sending mixed messages about its plans regarding international students.
“Based on the evidence gathered for this report, we do not recommend any toughening of visa requirements, so a clear statement on this would also reassure. It would be better to loosen visa requirements as much as possible.”
The committee did not recommend removing students from the net migration target of tens of thousands, saying it would be “difficult technically, and if done correctly would make almost no difference to the net migration figures”.
Theresa May has repeatedly rejected suggestions that the UK should exclude international students from official migration figures.
The committee recommended that the post-study leave-to-remain period for masters students be extended from four to six months.
In addition, the committee said the 12 months leave to remain after completion of a PhD should be automatically built in to the original visa duration – it currently has to be applied for, with associated costs.
The advisers stopped short of introducing a separate post-study work visa, which they acknowledged would disappoint some in the education sector.