Will UK limit number of foreign students at universities? Rishi Sunak immigration plan explained - reaction

The Prime Minister is considering cracking down on international students after net migration reached half a million.

Universities could go bankrupt if the government limits the number of international students in a bid to reduce migration, an adviser on immigration policy has warned.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is planning to clamp down on the number of foreign students studying at UK universities as he attempts to tackle record immigration numbers. His potential plans include only allowing in students who gain a place at a top university, reducing the number of those who opt for “low-quality” degrees, and imposing new restrictions on students bringing family members and dependents with them.

It comes as net migration climbs to half a million, with around 504,000 more people estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months up to June 2022, representing a sharp increase from the 173,000 in the year up to June 2021. In universities, the number of dependents who accompanied students tripled in a year.

But the chair of the government’s Migration Advisory Committee has said plans to reduce the number of foreign students could “send many universities over the edge”, particularly those in poorer regions.

Professor Brian Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Most universities for most courses lose money on teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students. If you close down the international route I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”

The government is considering reducing the number of international students allowed at UK universities. Credit: Getty Images

He added that while London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if overseas students were only allowed places at “elite” universities, he questioned: “But what about Newcastle, what about the north east, the north west, Scotland? If you’re interested in the levelling up agenda, you might want to worry about harming universities around Britain.”

The King’s College economics professor also pointed out that it was not just an immigration policy but also an education policy, as it could lead to a “massive increase” in British students’ fees to make up for the loss of international students’ payments.

Downing Street however has said that “all options” were on the table, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson insisting Sunak is “fully committed” to bringing overall immigration levels down and blaming “unprecedented and unique circumstances” for the record high. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), who provided the figures, also said the increase has been driven by “unique” factors. These include visa schemes for Ukrainians and citizens of Hong Kong.

There are also more people arriving at universities, with people with student visas accounting for the largest proportion of long-term immigration of non-EU nationals. According to ONS, the figures stand at 277,000 - or 39% of the total, with the organisation’s deputy director of the centre for international migration Jay Lindop saying the lifting of travel restrictions post-pandemic likely contributed to this.

Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering “all options” available to tackle migration. Credit: Getty Images

Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependents and low-quality degrees.”

Professor Bell agreed that restricting the number of family members students can bring to the UK is “certainly worth looking into”. He said: “If you’re an undergraduate student you’re not allowed to bring a dependent but students doing Master’s and PhD programmes are allowed to bring dependents and that’s gone up from – it used to be very small, about 20,000 visas a year – and it’s now up to about 70 or 80,000.

“That’s an area where the government may want to think about whether the offer is right, particularly for one-year Master’s programmes it’s perhaps less clear why we should be allowing dependents.”

International students currently pay much higher fees than students who live in the UK. Credit: Getty Images

Some in Parliament will may not respond well to the news. The Department for Education could raise concerns over universities’ funding if the number of high fee-paying international students is cut, while Chancellor Jeremy Hunt only last week insisted immigration is required to boost growth.

The Tory MP said: “There needs to be a long-term plan if we’re going to bring down migration in a way that doesn’t harm the economy. We are recognising that we will need migration for the years ahead – that will be very important for the economy.”

But Sunak will likely be supported by his Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who has made comments which align with the new proposals in the past. She previously complained about foreign students “bringing in family members who can piggyback onto their student visa” and “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.