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Why David Cameron is challenging Rishi Sunak on foreign students

The Foreign Secretary is warning the PM that a crackdown on student visas will bring few political or policy benefits.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Are relations between Rishi Sunak and his Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, starting to get a little tense? That’s certainly the impression this week. The pair seem decidedly unaligned on the topic of immigration, in particular on student visas.

Sunak is again under pressure to get the numbers down, with the latest net migration figures due on Thursday. These are expected to still be high – far above the “tens of thousands” target the Tories have been promising for 14 years. Conscious of the strength of feeling within his party – with potential leadership hopefuls like Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman poised to make as much hay as they can from this contentious issue – the PM is once again looking for a snazzy way to show he is in control.

January’s move to ban international students from bringing family members into the country has proved more successful than expected. The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) estimated it could reduce overall net figures to below 200,000 by the election (in the 12-month period to June last year, that figure was 672,000). But Conservatives on the right of the party are still agitating for further curbs on so-called “Deliveroo visas” which they say offer backdoor routes for low-skilled workers to come to the UK. So a further tightening of the visa system has been mooted, such as restricting graduate visas to the top universities or limiting the length of time graduates can remain in the UK after their courses end.  

Not everyone is impressed with these proposals. The MAC has said such a move is unnecessary (especially in light of the higher-than-anticipated effect of the family members ban) and recommended the rest of the graduate visa system should remain the same. And there are divisions within the cabinet too, with some ministers (namely Jeremy Hunt, James Cleverly and Gillian Keegan) voicing concerns about the economic impact of the suggested measures.

The most robust intervention, though, is coming from the foreign secretary. Cameron has flagged the risk to the Britain’s “soft power” if international students are too zealously restricted from attending UK universities. He has also noted their “significant economic contribution” and warned that “one of the consequences of any restrictions on graduate visas is that universities will experience further financial difficulties  – leading to job losses, closures and a reduction in research”.

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As a policy quandary, you can see where both sides are coming from. Despite the persistent myth that international students “take” university places from domestic students, the opposite is the case: cash-strapped universities accept large numbers of foreign applicants and use the higher international fees to subsidise places for domestic students, whose fees are capped at the 2018 level of £9,250. The higher education sector is in crisis, with multiple institutions on the brink of financial distress. Restricting this income stream could see universities going bankrupt. This could have devastating consequences for current staff and students and, potentially, for the taxpayer. No wonder the chancellor and the education secretary are wary.

There appears to be at least some public understanding of this trade-off. A Survation poll published this week found that, when asked what they thought the likely consequences of restricting international students would be, over half of people said “tuition fees for domestic students will increase”. The survey also found that a majority of people (51 per cent) thought an international student coming to study at a British university or remaining in the UK after graduating would have a very or somewhat positive impact on the UK. Voters might want overall net migration figures to fall, but they seem relaxed about international students (and, indeed, other types of legal migrants like doctors and skilled workers).

That doesn’t help Sunak, however, who is anxious to get the headline figure down. No matter how popular the various types of visas are with the public, the view on the right of the Tory party is that the British people feel the Conservatives have “lost control” of border policy, and that high net migration figures are being interpreted as a betrayal of the Brexit promise. The rise of Nigel Farage’s Reform party and the poor Conservative performance in the local elections have cemented this position. There is a reason why, during a webinar with Liz Truss’s Popular Conservatives group last week, former immigration minister Jenrick focused his remarks on legal immigration, as opposed to simply talking about illegal small boat crossings.

This is hardly a new dilemma – in fact, it’s one the Conservatives have been grappling with for over a decade. Getting legal migration numbers down comes with trade-offs. It will have serious consequences on the health sector, the social care sector, universities, hospitality, construction and of course on the nation’s finances. There is a reason the Treasury is concerned. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible (various Tory thinkers, such as backbencher Neil O’Brien, have outlined suggestions for how to transition to a low-migration economy), but it is difficult and expensive, at least in the short term. So it isn’t surprising that Sunak is getting pushback. As a former Treasury man himself, he ought to understand that.

It is interesting that the pushback is coming from Cameron, the man Sunak ennobled to bring some firepower into his cabinet. Cameron, of course, faced the same challenge when he was prime minister. In fact, the “tens of the thousands” figure came from the former PM himself when he was opposition leader (though there is disagreement over whether he ever meant it to be a target rather than a vague ambition). Tension within the Tory party on missing this target was one of the (many) factors that led Cameron to allow a referendum on leaving the EU. He should know firsthand what sort of pressure his successor is under from his party.

In spite of this disagreement, Cameron remains a relatively close Sunak ally. The pair generally get on well, and as a leader who won an election he is likely to have a significant role in the upcoming campaign. And, unlike other members of the cabinet, Sunak can be reasonably sure his foreign secretary isn’t angling for his job – Cameron no longer has skin in that particular game. The fact he is intervening now to push Sunak away from toughening up student visa rules suggests not just a strong ideological objection, but also an awareness that the payoff of this policy in terms of winning back voters is limited. His intervention can be taken as a warning to Sunak: it is not worth risking a lucrative sector that has been a source of great international pride to the UK just to placate backbenchers who won’t be appreciative and voters who aren’t coming back.

Whether or not the Prime Minister decides to listen is another matter.

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