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Why Cameron shouldn't celebrate the fall in net migration

Reducing net migration by cutting foreign student numbers is an act of economic masochism.

David Cameron watches passengers go through immigration control during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Cameron was quick to celebrate the news that net migration to the UK has fallen by nearly a quarter over the last year, declaring that "effective immigration helps us compete in the global race". The fall in net migration (the difference between the number of people leaving the country and the number entering), from 242,000 to 183,000, is the largest for four years and means Cameron is significantly closer to his goal of reducing the number of net arrivals to "the tens of thousands" by the end of the Parliament.

But what Cameron didn't and won't say is that the fall in net migration was principally due to a decline of 19,000 in the number of foreign students, with 26 per cent fewer visas issued. Relying on reduced student numbers in order to curb net migration is, as I've written before, an act of economic masochism. Estimates suggest that an annual fall of 20,000 in the number of foreign students, who account for more than a tenth of higher education income in England, will cost the economy around £1bn-£1.5bn. 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.

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 anaemic 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.