In a letter leaked to The Daily Mail last night, Willetts told Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that he wanted a “clear commitment” from the government not to reduce legitimate student numbers in order to meet targets to lower net migration. He added that he wanted to “explore ways of presenting net migration figures to make this apparent”.
“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,” he said. “We should be seeking to increase the numbers of legitimate students coming to study.”
With some 250,000 new enrollments each year, overseas students represent the UK’s largest immigrant group and the government sees reducing their number as key to lowering net migration – the number coming to the country minus those leaving – to the “tens of thousands” by the next election in 2015.
“We should be seeking to increase the numbers of legitimate students coming to study”
However, the government is facing growing criticism that counting students as long-term immigrants distorts the true picture of immigration to the UK and makes universities less competitive in the lucrative overseas student market.
Earlier this month a cross-party committee of UK MPs argued the government’s policy was putting “a world class export market at risk”. This followed another letter from a parliamentary committee in July and a letter to the government in May from 71 university heads on the issue.
At last week’s Universities UK conference, Willetts outlined plans to publicise disaggregated net migration figures – to view students separately so “the debate can be better informed” – but stopped short of calling for their removal to the disappointment of some in the sector.
However, last night’s letter puts him more squarely at odds with fellow cabinet members such as the immigration minister, Damian Green—who wants to keep the current UN method of counting net migration which views those who stay for longer than a year as a long-term immigrant.
“We must maintain confidence across the world in the fair deal for overseas students”
“To say that someone who comes here for three years as a student is not here and doesn’t count is absurd,” Green recently told MPs.
Willetts has also launched a drive to reassure students abroad that they are still welcome in the UK after London Metropolitan University’s much publicised loss of highly trusted sponsor status at the end of August. The minister has launched a task force and UK£2 million fund to support the 2,600 non-EU students displaced by the debacle. He also intends to co-author a publicity article with UUK president, Eric Thomas, to run in newspapers in key overseas student markets
“We must not lose sight of the individual students who are most affected by the current situation and we must maintain confidence across the world in the fair deal for overseas students,” he said.