Despite Nick Clegg's efforts, the number of new students from India has fallen by 49 per cent. Photo: Flickr
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The British public embraces foreign students; politicians should do so too

The public’s views on immigration are more nuanced than is often assumed.

The government likes to give the impression that it is cracking down on immigrants. The attempts extend to those who might better be thought of as paying guests: foreign students.

They have been among the biggest losers of David Cameron’s notorious pledge to reduce net immigration to “tens of thousands”. Since 2010, changes to the student visa system, including limiting opportunities for post-study work, imposing a maximum length of study time and significant increases in the cost of applications have made Britain a less attractive place for the best and brightest foreign students.

Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, the number of new students from India fell by 49 per cent, with almost as large a decrease from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia too. This has been somewhat masked by increased demand from China, but the number of non-EU students starting courses fell from 174,225 in 2010–11 to 171,910 in 2012–13, ending a long-term trend of growth.

Britain is in no position to reject the benefits of foreign students. It’s broadly agreed that the overall economic benefit is several billion pounds per year, but the precise amount is contested,” says Dr Carlos Vargas Silva, a Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. A study by Universities UK this year said that the equivalent of 136,000 full-time British jobs could be attributed to the enrolment of non-EU students at British universities. And, at a time when universities are facing cuts, the fees paid by foreign students contribute both to maintaining the quality of the country’s universities and improving access schemes for disadvantaged pupils.

There is also a wider point. Lord Heseltine yesterday said that there was "no doubt" students educated at UK universities went on to become "ambassadors" for the UK. The bonds foreign students develop with Britain benefit the country’s ‘soft power’ and clout, and help to facilitate future trade and business agreements.

And curbs on foreign students are not even popular. A new report from British Future reveals that 59 per cent of the public says the government should not reduce international student numbers, even if that limits the government’s ability to cut immigration numbers overall; just 22 per cent disagree. Only 22 per cent of the public thinks that international students should count as migrants and – perhaps most surprisingly – fully 75 per cent think that international students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating.

These figures are significant. They reveal that, when it comes to immigration, the public’s views are rather more nuanced than is often assumed. Politicians who support skilled immigration but are often too timid to make their views public should take note.

It also suggests there may be a little wriggle room for the Conservatives. The most recent figures put annual net migration at 212,000, more than double what the Tories hoped it would be by the next election. Excluding foreign students from the total would reduce total net migration and bring them closer to their target in 2010. By how much is not entirely clear – Robert McNeil of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory describes the figures as a “quagmire”. It would also make it easier for economically damaging policies against foreign students to be halted. But these reasons seem less compelling set against Conservative fears that the decision would be attacked, especially by Ukip, as an admittance of failure to deliver on immigration.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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