November 26, 2012 2:08 pm

Johnson turns up heat on immigration

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Boris Johnson has made his most strident intervention so far on the government’s immigration policy, warning in letters to cabinet ministers that the crackdown on abuse of student visas has “inflicted damage” on London’s reputation for excellence in higher education.

The London mayor’s broadside against the rules on foreign students comes as his Conservative colleagues are increasingly divided on their pre-election pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015. George Osborne, the chancellor, is known to be concerned that attempts to prevent migrant inflows are a barrier to growth, while Theresa May, home secretary, is determined to press on and meet the target.

In a typically outspoken assault on the government policy, Mr Johnson – who is on a five-day visit to India to promote business and educational links with the UK capital – said ministers were right to enforce tight border controls and turn away those who would be a drain on the state. But he added: “It’s crazy that we should be losing India’s top talent and the global leaders of the future to Australia and the US.”

Speaking ahead of a visit to Amity University, south of Delhi, Mr Johnson said that the “mood music” sent out by the visa rules was threatening the £2.5bn revenue to the capital generated by students from outside Europe. “The policy on visas is, in my view, sending out the wrong signal,” the London mayor said. “There are so many stipulations that we are starting to lose business to Australia, America and Canada.”

These comments coincided with the arrival of letters from the London mayor to Ms May and Vince Cable, business secretary, suggesting that a target-based approach was misplaced. “It is imperative that we shift the debate on student visas away from numerical targets and squarely on to policy based on promoting jobs and growth in the UK,” he wrote.

Although the Home Office has put a cap on the number of economic migrants who are allowed to enter the UK, it has so far avoided any such restrictions on foreign students. However, the department has implemented a crackdown on bogus educational institutions and brought in new rules to limit the number of foreign students who can stay and work in the UK after gaining a degree.

Responding to the mayor’s letter, a Home Office spokesman responded that the department’s “radical reforms” were tackling the problems of student visa abuse head-on, while still keeping Britain “open for business”.

“The UK has some of the very best universities in the world and talented international students are welcome here,” the spokesman added. “Indeed, there is no limit on the number of students who can come to the UK.”

Writing to Mr Cable, Mr Johnson called for a drive to promote UK universities abroad through a commission, which would include government ministers, higher education industry figures and border agency representatives. He also suggested the Home Office should ask the government’s independent advisers on immigration to undertake a study of the economic costs and benefits of overseas students.

After China, India is the biggest source of foreign students in the UK, with 39,090 in 2010-11, or 13 per cent of the total, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. London attracted a quarter of the 418,000 international students in the UK in 2010-11.

Mr Johnson is accompanied on his India tour by a delegation of business executives and officials, and will go on to Hyderabad and Mumbai later this week.

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