Last updated: December 11, 2012 11:36 pm

May hits at universities on immigration

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Theresa May©Charlie Bibby

Theresa May, home secretary, has been accused of 'dragging her feet'

Theresa May has hit out at university leaders who complain that her drive to reduce net migration is damaging the UK’s higher education market, arguing it is up to them as well as government to promote the education system abroad.

Ahead of a speech on immigration on Wednesday, the home secretary defended her department against claims that it was “anti-growth” and rebuked critics such as Boris Johnson, mayor of London, who laid into “crazy” government policies on foreign students during a trip to India last month.

Ms May is expected to reassure vice-chancellors in the speech on Wednesday that there will be no cap on student migrants. She will also pledge to relax rules on how long PhD students can remain in the UK after completing their studies – addressing concern among academics that many of the brightest foreigners are lost to Britain when their courses end.

However, she made it clear that universities should spend more time working to attract overseas applicants rather than complaining that students from abroad are being put off by Home Office policies.

“The universities have got a job here as well in making sure that people actually understand that we’re open for university students coming into the UK,” she says in an interview. “There’s a job here not just for the government, I think there’s a job for the universities as well to make sure that people know that we are open.”

Ms May makes clear her disapproval for Mr Johnson’s intervention on immigration policy while in India. “Well, yes, Boris has said a number of things about immigration at various times,” she says, in an apparent reference to the London mayor’s sometimes oscillating views. “But it’s important that we all give the message that Britain is open for business.”

Fresh from her own research trip to India and buoyed by new net migration figures showing that the figure has dropped by a quarter to 183,000 in the last year, Ms May is undaunted by universities’ criticisms – in fact she is considering new measures that could make entry for new students harder.

One option she is “definitely looking at” is introducing face-to-face interviews with visa authorities for prospective students outside the EU, an idea which the UK is testing through a pilot in India.

But if Ms May is to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 by 2015 as promised by the Conservatives, more changes to the system will be necessary. Even though the government is powerless to stop lower-skilled migrants entering the UK from the EU, it intends to look at the “pull factors” that attract them to the country. “Benefits, the welfare system, will be one of the issues that we look at,” the home secretary confirms.

While she is battling to keep long-term migrants out, the challenge is how to bring short-term, lucrative tourists in – an issue that has caused particular contention among Ms May’s colleagues in other departments. The visa barriers faced by high-spending Chinese visitors have prompted recent criticisms in cabinet from both the prime minister and the chancellor.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport wants to treble the number of Chinese tourists by 2015, so that London is more competitive with other popular shopping locations such as Paris and Berlin. But there has been little progress from the Home Office in simplifying the complex bureaucracy.

However, Ms May now confirms that the Home Office is talking to Chinese tour groups about how to streamline the system, looking at expanding online applications and allowing some visa forms to be available in Mandarin, rather than in English. Furthermore, an express system for premium travellers who pay extra for an expedited service is also in train.

“We’ve now got a three to five-day priority service in 23 emerging markets and we’re looking at what we can do to perhaps introduce in certain key markets a 24-hour visa turnaround,” the Home Secretary says.

Ms May bridles at the idea that her department is exercising a block on growth. She says the Home Office’s job is to make sure the UK is open for business while driving out abuse in the system.

“Companies want to know that if they’re coming into the UK, if they’re bringing staff into the UK, that there’s that stable and secure background that people are coming to,” she says.

“So I argue that everything across the Home Office that we do actually is about ... can contribute to that, to the growth agenda.”

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