Vice-chancellors are claiming partial victory in their fight to ensure foreign student numbers are not capped or cut, after ministers announced changes to the way the government reports student migration.
David Willetts, universities minister, told a conference of vice-chancellors that the government will collect improved data on overseas students leaving the country, and then publish more accurate estimates of the net inflow of students.
Speaking at the conference of Universities UK, the association of sector leaders, he said that while this did not change government migration policy, it would lead to a “better informed” debate.
The higher education sector has pursued a long crusade against the government’s inclusion of foreign students within the overall net migration figure, which stands at about 216,000.
Home Office ministers are working to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands” by 2015 in line with a Conservative election pledge. The education lobby fears moves to restrict the entry of overseas students who account for about 40 per cent of inward migrant flows.
Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, said the more detailed data collection would support the universities’ case by making clear “that students are temporary migrants, not permanent [residents]”.
Universities hope this will pave the way for a change in government policy, although the Home Office said on Thursday it had no such plans.
The debate has developed into a political struggle between Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, and Theresa May, home secretary. Mr Cable is keen to protect the £8bn higher education industry but Mrs May does not want to be accused of moving the goalposts on the net migration target.
Prof Acton told the FT it was “not possible to meet the immigration target without cutting students”.
Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol university and president of Universities UK, said the government’s stance on immigration was undermining the sector. “Parts of government are sending out messages that are damaging to our reputation of being welcoming to overseas students.”
Mr Willetts also told the conference, held at Keele University, near Stoke-on-Trent, that he was setting aside £2m to help overseas students from London Metropolitan University, which recently lost its right to sign off student visas after the UK Border Agency found it was doing too little to keep track of overseas students. Its non-EU learners must join new courses at other institutions or leave the UK.
Prof Thomas told the conference: “Around 3,000 students, of whom the overwhelming majority were bona fide students, found themselves in a foreign country far from home without a course. I have had no rational explanation of how that fulfilled our duties to them as human beings, never mind as students. ”
Mr Willetts’ announcement highlights the paucity of data on emigration: the government relies on surveys of passengers to establish which people are leaving the country. Ministers suspect the number of students leaving the country is understated. Prof Thomas compared arguments on migration to a bout between “blind boxers”.
The “e-borders” system, designed to count travellers in and out of the country, has been delayed by a series of legal wranglings and IT problems since being announced six years ago.
The Home Office’s latest estimate is that the exit checks, which will allow better monitoring of how long students and other migrants spend in the country, will be in place in 2015.