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How the immigration cap is strangling our universities

The restrictions on foreign students are costing the UK £3bn a year.

David Cameron talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

When even the Daily Telegraph says that the government's immigration policy is too restrictive, you know that something's gone badly wrong. The cause of the Telegraph's ire is the coalition's disastrous decision to include students in the immigration cap, a policy that is costing us £2bn-£3bn a year. It notes: "[E]ven with the new curbs, ministers can probably only meet the migration target by depriving universities of thousands of genuine students, many of whom would go on to make a glittering contribution to this country."

The latest immigration figures showed that the number of visas issued to international students fell by 21% in the year to June 2012. Normally the news that one of our biggest export industries has declined by a fifth in a year would be cause for alarm, but ministers hailed it as proof that they were making progress towards their goal of dramatically reducing net migration. Immigration minister Damian Green said he was hopeful that "the fall we've now started seeing in these figures up to the end of last year will continue in the months and years ahead." In other words, the government is hoping that the university sector will decline at the fastest rate possible.

Such masochistic policy is, of course, the inevitable result of Cameron's populist (and unachievable) pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year, a level not seen since the days of the Major government. With the government unable to restrict EU immigration (unless it leaves the club altogether), its only option is to squeeze non-EU migration as hard as it can and that means closing the door to thousands of would-be students. In today's FT, Richard Lambert, the Chancellor of Warwick University and the former head of the CBI, writes of how "The UK Border Agency is putting intense pressure on several institutions, including well-run ones, where vice-chancellors claim they are having to account for their international students’ whereabouts almost in real time."

There's still little chance of Cameron meeting his target, but at least he'll be able to boast that the numbers are "moving in the right direction" (even as our shrinking economy is further enfeebled). Yet since most student migration is short-term (they study, then leave), reduced immigration now means reduced emigration later, so the impact on net migration is negligible. Is the government really strangling one of our most successful sectors so that it can temporarily claim that immigration is coming down? The answer is yes.