Students. Around Russell Square.
© Anna Gordon/FT

A cross-party group of mayors has joined the growing clamour for the government to rethink its policies on international students following a sharp slowdown in the number coming to the UK.

In a letter to the Financial Times, seven mayors call for Britain to project a “more open and welcoming message” to overseas students.

The letter is signed by four Conservative mayors — Andy Street of the West Midlands, Ben Houchen of the Tees Valley, James Palmer of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and Tim Bowles of the West of England — as well as three Labour ones: Sadiq Khan of London, Andy Burnham of Greater Manchester and Steve Rotheram of Liverpool.

It is rare for a politically diverse group of mayors to act in concert on such a contentious political issue. They have also sent a letter to the Migration Advisory Committee, the independent agency which advises the government on migration issues.

The mayors’ call comes after the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, last week published research estimating that each year’s intake of overseas students brought £22.6bn of benefits to the economy while imposing only £2.3bn costs on the public sector.

In their letter to the FT, the mayors say that £8bn of the £20.3bn of net benefits are generated in their areas. “This helps support local businesses and provides a boost for tourism,” they write.

The letter goes on to say that Britain is one of the most attractive destinations in the world for international students but points to data about a slowdown in growth.

The number of overseas students coming to the UK to study rose by just under 1 per cent to 442,755 in the 2016-17 academic year compared with 2015-16, as fewer people came from India, Nigeria and several other non-EU countries, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Authority last week.

The figures relate to the first full academic year after the June 2016 Brexit referendum, but most students would have applied for their courses before the result of the vote was known.

The mayors stop short of calling for Britain to end its unusual practice of counting international students as part of official net migration figures.

Higher education leaders blame this practice for tough visa restrictions on overseas students that they say have curbed the growth in their number.

But the mayors write: “As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is important that any future immigration system acknowledges the vital contribution international students make to regional jobs and growth. This includes projecting a more open and welcoming message for international students.”

The research by the Higher Education Policy Institute found many of the biggest economic beneficiaries of international students were cities such as Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool.

Cabinet ministers including home secretary Amber Rudd and chancellor Philip Hammond have been pushing for the government to exclude students from its target to bring annual net migration down to the “tens of thousands”, although Theresa May, prime minister, is opposed to any change in policy.

The government has come nowhere near meeting its net migration target since adopting it in 2010.

The question is likely to be a key one for the Migration Advisory Committee when it reports on the UK’s future migration needs later this year.

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