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We can't afford to leave foreign students out in the cold

Especially all night, in queues.

Hospitality fail: a protester in London in August. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In a Sun article a few weeks ago, Theresa May boasted: “We saw a record 62 per cent drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012.” Year on year, they fell by a third to 213,836. I suppose some congratulations are due to the Tory Home Secretary and her party – they are successfully destroying Britain’s reputation as a leading destination for higher education. Foreign students bring in an estimated £12.5bn a year, but it’s not as if the country needs to exploit its competitive sectors during the deepest recession in a century, is it? 

May went on in the same piece to blame immigration for increased “pressure on our health, education, transport and welfare services” – all areas that the Conservative Party has industriously been assaulting with its poorly thought-out and expensive policies, which have seen the national deficit climb 22 per cent so far this year.

Despite May’s triumphant tone in reporting the drop in student visas, the universities minister David “Opportunities For Women Ended Up Magnifying Social Divides” Willetts (of all people) recently suggested a sensible movement towards decoupling foreign student figures from those measuring net migration. "I want to make clear the attitude of the government," he said. "There is no limit on the number of legitimate students from overseas studying at British universities." Net migration will still include foreign students but the publication of disaggregated figures within migration statistics will hopefully help reorientate the debate in a healthier direction – ie, away from May's hot air.

International students are not, on the whole, permanent migrants. That’s why other major English-language education exporters such as Australia and the US don’t even include them in immigration caps. However, because as many as two in every five arrivals to the UK are here to study, the temptation to down-engineer their figures is irresistible to a government that has pledged to cut net migration to the "tens of thousands".

Phantom menace

Meanwhile, UK institutions are slipping down international league tables as a result of what the Times Higher Education World University Rankings editor Phil Baty has called a “perfect storm” of “falling public investment in teaching and research; hostile visa conditions discouraging the world’s top academics and students from coming here; and serious uncertainty about where our next generation of scholars will come from, with a policy vacuum surrounding postgraduate study”. Is this a deliberate Tory strategy? Maybe if they make British higher education really rubbish, those menacing foreigners will just go away?

Or how about making them stand around in queues through the night to register their stay in this country? This week, footage by Daniel Stevens of the National Union of Students emerged showing students from 42 countries lining the streets in their hundreds in the early hours of the morning, hoping to make their seven-day deadline to check in with the Overseas Visitors Records Office. "It is absolutely unacceptable that students be asked to be queue for hours, often in terrible weather, and be expected to arrive before 6.30am to have any chance of being seen," said Stevens to the BBC. Queuing has long been considered "a sacred part of British culture" but . . . seriously.

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