UK under pressure to change stance on foreign students

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 08, 2018

British Prime Minister Theresa May has been adamant that a tough immigration regime is one of the takeaways from the Brexit referendum   -  AFP

International students are currently included in immigration figures and targets

Inclusion of international students in immigration figures and targets — a controversial policy British Prime Minister Theresa May has continued to insist on, despite opposition from within and outside her Conservative Party — could finally go, amid strengthening pressure for change.

Last year, the UK government backed off at the last minute from an opportunity to bring in change through a House of Lords amendment to a legislation going through the House of Commons on higher education. The government policy was known to be openly opposed by many Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

An ‘ open’ Britain

They believed it was injurious to the university sector, adding to the perception of a hostile environment for foreign students that many in the sector believe has contributed to declining student numbers from countries such as India. They also believe the policy is unhelpful to Britain’s efforts to foster strong trade ties outside the EU following Brexit, and believe the removal of the target will be a big goodwill gesture, signalling an ‘open’ Britain.

However, with the Prime Minister — a former Home Secretary — adamant that a tough immigration regime was one of the takeaways from the Brexit referendum, little could change.

This was despite the disclosure of data last year, gleaned from exit checks, that revealed that the numbers of foreign students over-staying their visas were far lower than the government had previously estimated.

Support for amendment

However, in early January, a number of British newspapers have reported that senior members of the Conservative Party have warned that they could back an amendment to a legislation on immigration that would remove the target.

With the government’s narrow majority in the House of Commons, they could face an embarrassing defeat at a time the government needed to show its strength (with Brexit legislation passing it through Parliament), they said.

Writing in the Evening Standard (which he now edits) earlier this week, former Chancellor George Osborne accused the Prime Minister of single-handedly maintaining the policy, and alongside others urged change.

The Times reported that Cabinet ministers were warning of defeat for the government if it came to a vote.

The Independent said Home Secretary amber Rudd was among those who were urging the Prime Minister to change her stance.

The Guardian reported that a number Conservative chairs of parliamentary select committees had also indicated their willingness to rebel. “For years, Theresa May has stubbornly refused to accept that international students are not immigrants, while the Home Office has wildly exaggerated the number of those who overstay. This absurd policy has fuelled concerns over immigration numbers and done serious damage to our universities,’ said Liberal Democrats leader Vincent Cable. “It’s about time the government dropped this completely self-harming approach.”

If the target were dropped, it is likely to be seen a welcome step by India ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April in London, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend.

Britain has been touting a potential free-trade deal with India as one of the examples of what post-Brexit Britain could achieve.

But India’s response has been lukewarm — welcoming a deal in theory, but highlighting how policies such as Britain’s stance on immigration (particularly around students) and movement of professionals in the service sector, would need to shift.

Published on January 05, 2018

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