International students do not have a long-term impact on migration numbers, Theresa May has admitted, in a marked softening of tone from her previous hardline position on the issue.
The prime minister took a tough stance towards overseas students when she was home secretary and in her first few months as prime minister, attacking those coming to the UK under the auspices of perceived low-grade institutions, with the real intention of finding work.
But speaking to reporters in China, May said rogue colleges who admitted students for phoney courses had been shut down and international students no longer had significant long-term effects on migration numbers.
“It was important to look at what was happening with students in the UK when I was home secretary,” May said, speaking on board her RAF Voyager plane during her three-day visit to China, during which she visited the country’s largest university city, Wuhan.
“There was a lot of abuse taking place in colleges – something like 900 colleges can no longer bring in overseas students because all too often they were being brought in to work, rather than for education. Once you see that abuse out of the system, students coming in for the period of their education and then leaving actually wash through the numbers – they don’t have a long-term impact on the numbers.”
A study from the Office for National Statistics which examined the exit data last year found there were no long-term issues with students overstaying their visas. Cabinet ministers are understood to believe the government could face defeat if the forthcoming immigration bill is amended to exclude student numbers from official figures.
However, May held firm that students should not be taken out of the official migration statistics, a view that is at odds with many in her cabinet. The home secretary, Amber Rudd, is believed to think that students should not be included, backed by the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, who described the decision to continue to include students in the numbers as “distortive, counterproductive and sends out the entirely wrong signals”.
Minsters are preparing to take foreign students out of the immigration figures, despite opposition from Theresa May. The Prime Minister has said it would undermine confidence in the statistics.
The international trade secretary, Liam Fox, admitted last year it was an “ongoing argument” around the cabinet table and suggested he had sympathy with the notion of removing students from the figures. “I’ve made my own views on that clear in private to the home secretary,” he said. “I think there is a value for those who come and study in the United Kingdom.”
May said it was essential students continued to be included. “The reason students have been in the numbers is because it’s an international definition of a migrant,” she said.