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Labour promises to end Home Office "hostage" of universities

Chuka Umunna says the party will consider adopting a target for growth in foreign student numbers.

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

In his speech today on how Britain can succeed in (you guessed it) "the global race", David Cameron again boasted that the government had reduced net migration by more than a third. What he didn't say is that the fall has come at a significant economic cost. 

As IPPR's Sarah Mulley recently pointed out on The Staggers, the reduction in immigration has been driven by a fall in student numbers, with 56,000 fewer entering the UK (a 23 per cent drop) in the year to September 2012, something forecast to have cost the economy £725m (the sector is worth an estimated £8bn) .  

Cameron claims that the government has merely "shut down the bogus colleges that were a front for illegal immigration", but the figures show genuine students are being excluded. While visas issued to university students increased by 5 per cent in the year to March 2013, there was a 46 per cent decline in the number issued through further education colleges and English language schools (which act as large feeder institutions to universities) and a 7 per cent decline in those issued by private schools. As Jo Beall, the British Council director for education and society, has noted, "Many students use these courses as a step towards applying to our universities, so it presents a long-term risk if we diminish what was a big recruitment pool of students who had already chosen to study in the UK".

Fortunately, there are signs that Labour would end this economic self-harm. At the launch of IPPR's new report on higher education today, Chuka Umunna said that a future Labour government would consider reviving the initiative launched by Tony Blair which set "a clear numerical target for growth in international student numbers". 

"I’m certainly open to that and will talk to Yvette Cooper about [it]," he said.

He added: "My big problem with the government at the moment in this area is that our HE sector, as a strong and vibrant export sector, has been taken hostage by the Home Office. And it has to stop.

"It is doing deep and immense damage. We cannot afford for that to happen to a leading export sector, in the context of our balance of trade deficit."

If Labour wants to demonstrate how it would deliver growth where the government has failed, there are few better examples than this.