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UK: overwhelming public support for foreign students, poll finds

Less than nine months before national elections in the UK, a new study based on opinion polls has been released showing strong public support for taking international students out of net migration figures.

Last year some 300,000 international students studied in the UK contributing an estimated £3.4bn to local economies

The report, released by think-tank British Future and Universities UK, shows that 59% of the public says the government should not reduce international student numbers.

The report shows that 59% of the public says the government should not reduce international student numbers

The study draws on a poll carried out by ICM of 2,111 people and six workshops held across the country. Not only were participants against reducing international student numbers but 75% think they should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating.

Last year some 300,000 international students studied in the UK, contributing an estimated £3.4bn to local economies in off-campus expenditures including rent, food, transport and entertainment – a benefit recognised by 60% of people polled.

The public also recognised the benefits higher tuition fees bring to universities and the knock-on effects this has for domestic students with 61% agreeing that universities would have less funding to invest in top quality facilities and teaching without the higher fees.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative party set the target in 2010 to reduce net migration figures to less than 100,000 by 2015 and has placed immigration control high on its platform for next year’s elections.

A series of reforms have already been put in place – including eliminating the post-study work route and introducing credibility interviews – that industry stakeholders say have directly impacted numbers from key markets, specifically India and Pakistan.

However, statistics from the report surprisingly reveal that Conservatives are among the strongest supporters for taking international students out of immigration figures with 66% of the party’s supporters saying they are in favour of the policy.

Former Conservative deputy prime minster Michael Heseltine has backed the report saying including foreign students in net migration figures could damage the UK’s reputation abroad.

“In talking about tens of thousands of people, the government will have to recognise that there are very large numbers of students in this country – in our universities, in our business schools – who are a great asset financially and educationally,” Heseltine told the BBC.

“The government will have to recognise that there are very large numbers of students in this country who are a great asset financially and educationally”

He added that overseas students were “not the sort of people that are causing the anxiety about immigration”.

Conservatives in the poll were also among the most in favour of extending post study work rights to foreign graduates. Three quarters (75%) of the public think international students should be permitted to stay and work in Britain for at least some period of time after they graduate while 81% of Conservatives polled agreed.

In addition to the economic and soft power benefits of overseas students, the report also shows that the British public thinks students have a positive effect on every day life.

“International students significantly increase the diversity and vibrancy of a local area. Members of the public who took part in our research groups – three quarters of them non-graduates – readily (and often enthusiastically) identified this as a significant local benefit brought by international students,” the report states.

“They attract improved services for local people – more and better shops, entertainment and transport, for example.”

Based on the public support, the report recommends that the government remove international students from any net migration target, launch an international student growth strategy, similar to those in place in other countries and backed by investment, make a renewed effort through to show convey the message that Britain welcomes international students and should enhance work opportunities for qualified graduates.

The report recommends that the government remove international students from any net migration target

Mark Field, Conservative MP and chairman of the lobby group Conservatives for Managed Migration, has also come out in support of the report.

“Politicians are rightly expected to engage with public views and anxieties about immigration, and the government has admirably done so,” he said.

“It will, of course, be an important election issue for all political parties as we approach the 2015 General Election. But it is time politicians made the case that there are different types of immigration.”

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