Cameron’s struggles with immigration and foreign students

The news for Indian and other foreign students wishing to study in Britain’s excellent universities is not getting any better. This, reportedly, is because the government needs to make cuts in the number of foreign students if it is to fulfill its pledge to cut immigration numbers to “tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands.”

The problem with cutting overseas student numbers lies, of course, in the impact it is likely to have on the economy. Foreign students contribute around £8 billion to the British economy every year – money that the government cannot afford to lose as it faces a second recession.

Figures released last week showed that net migration to Britain (the difference between those coming in and those leaving the country) was 252,000 in the year to Sept 2011, nearly the same as the 255,000 figure for 2010. So things have barely changed since the Labour days.

Overall, the total number of migrants was 589,000 in 2010-2011, compared to 600,000 in 2009-2010. “There is no sign of any reduction from the huge numbers that developed under Labour,” says the pressure group Migration Watch. It identifies the reason as non-European migrants staying put in Britain. Whether these also include students is hard to tell at this point.

What was the most popular reason for people migrating to Britain? “Study remains the most common reason for migrating to the UK at 250,000 in the year to September 2011. This is similar to 245,000 in the year to September 2010,” says the Office for National Statistics.

You can find the ONS report here.

What to do about student numbers is proving a difficult nut to crack for David Cameron’s coalition government: apart from anything else, the Conservative and Liberal Democrats don’t appear to be on the same page on this issue.

Nevertheless, government officials have apparently warned universities that the only way immigration numbers can be brought down is by making deep cuts to the 298,000 non-European students who are at British universities. Another more than 100,000 are at schools and private colleges.

It is unclear what the government’s plans are. It has denied it wants a formal limit on student numbers but the Universities Minister, David Willetts said, “There comes a point where not everyone who wants to can travel through Heathrow (London’s main airport) to study in Britain.”

Willetts has also told universities that he will help them to expand overseas, so they don’t lose out on income. He is expected to spell out his plans in a speech at Stanford University in California next month.

India remains a major market for British universities, but recent moves to tighten the visa regime has seen a fall of more than 30% from India to some institutions. That’s a massive decline – one that caused at least one newspaper, the Sunday Times, to criticise the government’s policy.

Britain risked losing out to its higher education rivals Germany, France, Australia, Canada and the US by targeting student numbers, it said. One of the first acts of the new French president, Francois Hollande, would be to reverse a planned crackdown on foreign students. The paper’s “easy and sensible” proposal is to exclude bona fide foreign students from the overall migration numbers, unless they choose to stay back in Britain.

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