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Former Education Secretary Derides "Self-Defeating" Foreign Student Curbs

Former education secretary Justine Greening (Alamy)

5 min read

Justine Greening, a Conservative former education secretary, has urged Rishi Sunak to drop the "self-defeating" idea of further restrictions on international students after a major new report recommended that Government retains the graduate route.

Greening, a former Tory MP who led the Department for Education from 2016 to 2018, told PoliticsHome ministers should confirm that Government will not abolish the graduate route "as a matter of urgency" amid pressure from the right of the parliamentary Conservative party to bring down net migration levels. 

Earlier on Tuesday, the Migration Advisory Committee published a report recommending that the graduate route, introduced in 2021, continues to allow overseas students to stay in the country for up to three years after completing their studies. It is regarded by figures in higher education as an important element of the UK's worldwide attractiveness as a place to study, as well as a key contributor to university finances, with foreign students paying bigger fees to study in the UK than their British counterparts.

However, in recent weeks the graduate route has emerged as a potential focus for further government curbs on legal migration as Sunak scrambles to appease Tory MPs who want to significantly reduce overall migration levels before the next general election, which must be called before the end of this year.

MAC, which had been asked to carry out a rapid review of the graduate route by Home Secretary James Cleverly, said this morning its members had reached the "clear" conclusion that ministers should keep the graduate route in place, having found "no evidence of any significant abuse" by students who have used it.

"The Graduate route has broadly achieved, and continues to achieve, the objectives set by this government. We therefore recommend that the route remains in place in its current form," the body said in its findings," the committee said.

Greening insisted that the report was "really clear cut" and believed its recommendations should be respected by ministers. "The government should confirm very rapidly that there will be no further changes made to the graduate visa," she said. 

"It should remove the uncertainty that it has placed on international student numbers and that graduate visa route by confirming on the back of today's report that it will leave the current system in place, and it should do that as a matter of urgency."

A source close to Cleverly told PoliticsHome he would digest the MAC report before deciding his next steps on the graduate route. A government announcement could come as soon as this week, but is not expected today.

Greening, who was the Tory MP for Putney for 14 years, said she hoped the MAC report would put an end to ministers threatening universities with tighter immigration rules, and encourage more Conservative MPs to talk up the success of the UK's higher education sector.

"There's no point in the Prime Minister giving speeches about future of Artificial Intelligence and how important that's going to be for countries like the UK if at the same time counter-productive decisions are being made to undermine the very world class, higher education system that is going to be at the heart rising to the AI challenge," she said.

While Greening didn't name specific Conservative MPs, she said it was a "shame that some ex-ministers and current ministers" speak in such negative terms about the higher education sector when "for many people, this is a sector that is transforming their lives".

"It's been an engine of social mobility for Britain for at least two decades and long before that," she continued. 

"Ironically, undermining international students for our universities is harming the very universities that use much of that income to support British students. Ultimately it's not only self-defeating for the economy, it is self-defeating for leveling up in some of the very communities that most need it."

Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, both seen as potential candidates to lead the Tory party after the next general election, have both called for tighter rules for international students coming to the UK. 

On Monday Esther McVey, Sunak's so-called "common sense" minister, said she had "no sympathy" for universities that have complained about the financial impact of falling numbers of international students, saying they “should be selling academia, not an immigration policy”.

Speaking about MAC's findings, committee chair Professor Brian Bell said the graduate route was a "key part" of attracting students from abroad to study in the UK, and suggested that abolishing it would risk doing damage to the health and quality of British universities.

"The fees that these students pay helps universities to cover the losses they make in teaching British students and doing research. Without those students, many universities would need to shrink and less research would be done," Bell said.

The government has already brought in significant new restrictions for international students in its bid to drive down net migration after levels recently reached record highs. 

In January, new rules came into effect which ban international students from bringing family members with them to the UK from abroad, unless they are on postgraduate courses or government-funded scholarships. Two weeks ago, the Home Office said the major change had resulted in the number of visas granted to dependents falling by nearly 80 per cent in January to March 2024 compared with the same period last year.

Enroly, an online enrolment service used by one in three international students, found that the number of deposits submitted from overseas to study in the UK has fallen by nearly two thirds (57 per cent) year on year as of this month, in data shared with The Financial Times, seemingly reflecting the impact of restrictions brought in by the government.

Jeffrey Williams, Enroly's chief executive, told the newspaper the number of deposits had "plummeted" according to the figures, and warned ministers against introducing further restrictions on the higher education sector. "This steep decline signals a significant drop in the UK’s attractiveness as a study destination. With such a drastic year-on-year reduction, further restrictive policies could exacerbate an already critical situation," Williams said.

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