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Labour's pledge to end restrictions on foreign students will increase its appeal to business

The party's promise to exclude overseas students from any future immigration target puts it on the right side of the economic argument.

Party promises to exclude overseas students from immigration targets.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Cameron continues to proclaim his commitment to winning "the global race" and enabling Britain to maintain its international competitiveness. But rarely has there been a better example of the government doing the reverse than its treatment of foreign students.

Owing to the coalition's immigration restrictions, the number of overseas students has fallen for the first time in 29 years from 311,800 in 2011-12 to 307,205 in 2012-13 - Britain is strangling one of its greatest export industries. As well as a decline in EU student numbers from 23,440 to 17,890 (largely as a result of the tuition fees increase), the number of Indian students has fallen from 18,535 in 2010-11 to 10,235, and the number of Pakistani students has fallen from 4,580 to 2,825. In addition, foreign students are now required to find a job paying at least £20,600 within four months of graduating if they want to remain in the country, compared with a previous limit of two years. 

But while the Tories have refused to change course (despite the protestations of Boris Johnson and Vince Cable), Labour is promising to end this economic self-harm. In her speech today on immigration, Yvette Cooper will pledge to exclude students from any future government target. As she said on Today this morning, "we're in danger at the moment of having the worst of all worlds". Illegal immigration, which is not included in the coalition's cap is rising, while student numbers are falling. Cooper will say: 

As we’ve said, the last Labour government got things wrong on immigration We should have had transitional controls in place for Eastern Europe The figures were wrong, and migration was far greater than we expected. As a result the pace and scale of immigration was too great and it is right to bring it downAnd we should have recognised more quickly the impact on low skilled jobs, and the worries people had. 

But let’s be clear: this Government’s approach isn’t working either. David Cameron promised “no ifs no buts” that net migration would be cut to the tens of thousands. But he is failing to meet that target. And net migration has gone up in the latest figures by 60,000 to 210,000. At the same time illegal immigration – which isn’t included in their target – is getting worse. More people are absconding at the border, fewer are being caught and sent home, and the number of people here illegally is growing. Yet fee paying international students at our Universities – who are in their target – have fallen for the first time for 20 years, cutting the investment they bring into Britain. Exploitation of low skilled migrant labour by employers as a cheap option is getting worse. Yet top businesses are worried they can’t get the high skills they need The public are more concerned than ever – especially about the impact of EU migration

It’s the worst of all worlds

As well as excluding students from any overall target, Labour should also adopt a target for growth in their numbers, something Chuka Umunna has said he is "open" to. He said last year: "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." 

Most Labour figures privately acknowledge that the party will struggle to attract significant support from business at the general election. But by promising to abandon the coalition's closed-door approach to immigration, and to maintain Britain's membership of the EU, it has put itself on the right side of the argument on two key enterprise issues.