A senior Conservative minister is demanding the Government abandons its plan to reduce immigration by slashing student visas, a leaked letter revealed by the Daily Mail.
Higher education minister David Willetts told Nick Clegg he wanted more students coming to the UK, not fewer, despite admitting that the number who stay here illegally after their courses end is not known.
He is siding with the Lib Dems to insist the 250,000 non-EU students who come to Britain each year should be removed from the net migration figure – the difference between the number of people who arrive in Britain and those leaving.
The move would render the Tory election pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ meaningless. It would also fly in the face of public opinion, with seven in ten voters wanting to see a limit on student visas, according to a poll released today.
The Tories and Lib Dems have been fighting over whether to maintain the system of including students in net migration figures.
Home Office minister Damian Green recently told MPs: ‘To say that someone who comes here for three years as a student is not here and doesn’t count is absurd.’
Given the huge number of students arriving each year, campaigners believe it would be impossible to meet the ‘tens of thousands’ target without slashing student visas.
But in a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg, Mr Willetts makes it clear that he wants ‘no limit’ on legitimate students coming here to study.
Universities want to double the number of foreign students, who pay larger tuition fees than Britons, to fund their expansion plans.
However, estimates by the Home Office suggest one in five do not go home at the end of their course.
Mr Willetts’s four-page letter, seen by the Mail, demands a ‘clear commitment that the Government will not seek to reduce legitimate student numbers in order to meet the net migration target and will explore ways of presenting net migration figures to make this apparent’.
Mr Willetts – dubbed ‘Two Brains’ for his reputation as an intellectual – acknowledges ‘the difficulties of accurately removing students from the net migration statistics, particularly as we still lack robust data on the outflows of students from the country’.
But he adds: ‘However, I do not believe we can justify keeping students in the net migration target on this point alone, given the widespread concern that this could result in a reduction in the number of legitimate students. We should be seeking to increase the numbers of legitimate students coming to study.’
He wants ministers to make a public commitment that they have ‘no intention’ of ever placing ‘a cap or limit’ on international student numbers.
The news came as a YouGov poll found 70 per cent of voters want foreign students to be capped. The survey, commissioned by the Migration Watch anti-immigration think-tank, also found strong support for action against bogus students, with seven in ten saying those without sufficient English for their courses should be deported. Source: Daily Mail.
Mr Willetts knows that foreign students are worth billions to the UK economy and large numbers universities would not survive without them.
Last week he announced that he wants more detailed figures on overseas students that “disaggregate” them from totals on net migration.
Mr Willetts said the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was working on ways to “better count students in immigration flows”.
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