Calls by a Westminster committee to exclude students from net migration statistics were today welcomed by leaders in both higher and further education in Scotland.
According to a report released this morning by the Home Affairs Committee, students set to enrol in higher education across the UK must be exempt from migration targets if the sector is to remain at full strength.
Universities Scotland, the umbrella body representing principals at 19 institutions across the country, has told Holyrood significant levels of support for the move now necessitated a “rethink” by the UK government.
A series of changes to the student visa system have been introduced over the past 12 months in an effort to deliver a Conservative election pledge to cut migration from “the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands” by 2015.
However, the cross-party group of MPs today joined heads within the higher education sector in backing a change in the way international students are classified to prevent a brain-drain towards institutions in other countries.
“The Prime Minister’s aim to reduce migration from ‘the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’ cannot be achieved without drastically reducing the number of people who come to study in Britain,” the report said.
“It is likely that this would damage a strong sector of our economy and also the cultural diversity of our universities. We recommend that the government should exclude students from their net migration target. This will enable the government to encourage students to come to the UK whilst maintaining their position on curbing immigration.
“It is important that the UK does not fall behind its international competitors in this market by making the itself a less attractive option for international students. We do not believe that the UK would benefit if the government achieved its aim of reducing the number of student visas issued by 25 per cent.”
The appeal comes a day after 37 business leaders signed a letter in the Sunday Times warning inclusion of international students within official immigration figures threatened to compromise a valuable source of wealth and skills.
Universities Scotland’s Director, Alastair Sim, stressed the suggestion was in tune with consistent calls north of the Border to remove what it sees as a barrier to economic growth. “This builds on already significant levels of support for this move from a number of quarters including universities, business leaders and support within the Scottish Parliament,” he said.
“International students contribute over £400m value to the Scottish economy on an annual basis and enrich the student experience and university campuses socially and culturally.
“With close to 90 per cent of international students returning home after their studies it is entirely wrong in our view, that this group should be included as part of the UK Government’s net immigration targets and damaging to Scotland and the UK’s interests. We urge the UK Government to rethink.”
However, the representative body raised “some concerns about the feasibility” of a separate proposal urging the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to conduct compulsory face-to-face interviews with students ahead of their arrival in a bid to boost public confidence in the immigration system. The option of an online interview has been muted by the committee to tackle issues over distance.
Face-to-face interviews will be conducted with between 10,000 and 14,000 student visa applicants over the coming year following a three-month pilot earlier this year, though Universities Scotland intimated further exploratory talks would be sought with UKBA to ascertain how the measure might operate from a logistical point of view.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s Colleges stressed today’s findings renewed the need for a review of immigration rules that have left fewer than half of FE institutions north of the Border able to recruit international students long-term.
Chief Executive, John Henderson, told Holyrood: “These Home Affairs Committee recommendations are welcome, and recognises the important contribution that international students are making to the educational institutions, economy and culture of the whole of the United Kingdom. That is as true in our colleges as it is in our universities. Removing students from net migration statistics would be a major step in the right direction.
“There must be safeguards and confidence that these are genuine students; however that can be achieved – as the Committee indicates – in ways other than the current rules which we believe disadvantage our members, and has seen many facing a loss to their licence to recruit genuine, excellent students. The current system is in need of review, as this report appears to indicate. We hope to see these recommendations taken on by the UK Government.”