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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.

Despite Nick Clegg's efforts, the number of new students from India has fallen by 49 per cent. Photo: Flickr

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.