February 2, 2023

Justine Greening, the former Conservative education secretary, has attacked Rishi Sunak’s proposals to limit the number of international students at British universities, arguing the move could have a “serious negative impact” on the country.

In a letter co-signed by 12 university rectors, Greening urges education secretary, Gillian Keegan, to oppose new restrictions on students reportedly supported by Sunak in the wake of record levels of inbound migration.

“Reducing the number of international students could have serious negative consequences for the UK economy, productivity and our leading universities,” Greening said in the letter.

“The obvious cultural contribution and enrichment of the learning experience of UK students is evident, as is the knowledge sharing and research contribution international students make to our renowned higher education sector.”

Last month, No. 10 said Sunak was looking at new restrictions on international students as a way to reduce immigration, including restrictions on the number of universities they can apply to, and on their ability to bring family members.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We are considering all options to ensure that the immigration system works, and that includes looking at the issue of dependent students and low-quality qualifications.”

Greening, who stepped down as an MP in the last election, said it was vital that ministers “confirm that these plans are off the table as soon as possible”, adding: “The reality is that overseas students are paying significantly higher fees, which is crucial for the subsidizes education investment for domestic students.”

The letter warns that restricting international applicants to a small pool of selective universities would undermine social mobility and “threaten to widen the gap in higher education” by drawing resources away from areas that need it most.

“From the perspective of economic growth, it would be counterproductive to prevent international students from studying and making contacts in the very areas and regions where leveling is most needed and where companies mainly need that highly skilled workforce to grow.” said the group.

The 12 Vice-Chancellors who signed the letter include the leaders of the Universities of Southampton and Loughborough, as well as Steve West, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England and Chair of the Universities UK group.

The group recommends that Keegan support reform of UK migration statistics so that international students are reported separately from other immigrants.

“With international students included in the net migration figures, there is a risk that it may give a distorted view of the underlying broader realities of overall migration over the longer term,” the letter states.

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