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Theresa May: I did not exaggerate problem of foreign student 'overstayers'

3 min read

Theresa May has denied that she overstated the problem of foreign students overstaying their visas.

The Prime Minister claimed that figures showing only a tiny proportion did not leave on time reflected the success of her policies, after it emerged students were less likely to overstay than those arriving on visitor or work visas.

The Prime Minister has been roundly criticised since the Home Office published statistics based on exit checks that showed 97.4% of non-EEA students left in compliance with their visas.

As Home Secretary in 2015, Mrs May used her Conservative conference speech to highlight the apparent problem, claiming that “too many” were overstaying.

Although there were no official data on the number of overstayers, George Osborne used an Evening Standard editorial to accuse her of using "false information" to justify a crackdown on the number of foreign students coming to the UK.

In her first public comments on the row, Mrs May said the relatively small number of foreign students breaching their visa terms vindicated her policies since “significant numbers” had been overstaying in the past.

Asked whether the Home Office had been exaggerating the problem when she was Home Secretary, the Prime Minister told Sky News: “No, the figures that we’ve looked at in the past are the ONS figures.

“But what’s clear is that it’s action that we have taken as a government that has had an impact on students. We now see more students actually leaving the United Kingdom after they’ve completed their degree; previously we saw significant numbers staying.

“We have taken action to root out abuse in the system and that’s why we see greater numbers of students actually complying with our regulations.”

Amber Rudd, Mrs May’s successor in the Home Office, has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a wider inquiry into the contribution of foreign students to the UK.

A separate set of ONS figures last week showed net migration was 246,000 in the 12 months to March, the lowest level for three years, driven in part by more EU citizens leaving the UK.

The Conservatives recommitted to a target of cutting net migration below 100,000 per year – despite the misgivings of several senior Tory figures.

Mrs May said the fall was another step to cutting immigration to “sustainable levels”.

“We have always been clear as a government that we want to bring net migration down to sustainable levels – that’s down to the tens of thousands," she said.

“When I was Home Secretary I took a number of measures, to cut out abuse, for example, in people claiming to come to college here in the United Kingdom but actually coming to work, as a back-door route to work.

“We continue to look at that, the migration figures have been coming down but as we look at our migration policy, what we also ensure is we listen to business and we put in place arrangements that ensure we can welcome the brightest and the best to the United Kingdom – be they people whose skills business need or people coming to study at universities.”

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