David Willetts calls Theresa May's plans for foreign students "mean-spirited". Photo: Getty
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Former Tory universities minister slams Theresa May's plan to curb overseas student numbers

The former universities and science minister, David Willetts, blasts the Home Secretary's proposal for a student visa overhaul.

It was reported this week, as part of proposals apparently mooted so far for the Conservatives' 2015 manifesto, that the Home Secretary plans for overseas students to leave the UK and reapply for work visas once they've completed their studies.

Today, the Tories' former universities and science minister, who left the cabinet table in July this year, has condemned these plans in an article for The Times. Its headline reads: "May’s mean-spirited plan will damage Britain".

He writes:

We have already tightened up the rules and cracked down on bogus colleges to stop our student visa regime being exploited. But eventually you reach a tipping point. A further tightening of post-study work, as floated by the Home Office at the weekend, would do real damage to our universities and drive away overseas students. Indeed the Indian papers followed up yesterday with headlines such as “UK government plans to kick out foreign graduates”.

Willetts dismisses May's idea to deport students once they've finished their degrees “mean-spirited and inward looking”, and calls students studying abroad "an expanding global market" that Britain should keep, and increase, its share of.

Willetts, a veteran Tory frontbencher, is a respected figure (his nickname is "Two Brains", and he has written a number of well-received political books) and his remarks will prove embarrassing for the Home Secretary if the Tories decide to go ahead and put this proposal on their manifesto for the next election. Her plan to curb overseas students is being seen as gesture politics, to look tough on immigration to the UK, and mark herself out from other potential contenders for the Tory leadership.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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