Ostracising foreign students would only confirm that the UK is ‘closed for business’.

Unlike many nations, the UK does not incorporate international student numbers in net migration statistics while distinguishing between temporary and long-term migrants for the purposes of domestic policy. This approach, coupled with the Conservative-led coalition’s pledge to severely reduce net migration, has led to a number of imprudent and detrimental reforms.

In December, The Sunday Times reported that home secretary Theresa May (pictured) was seeking to incorporate a proposal in the Conservative party’s forthcoming manifesto that would move the UK toward ‘zero net student migration’. Under her plan, students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland (referred to here collectively as ‘non-EEA migrants’) would be required to leave the UK immediately upon completion of their studies.

Additionally, and in line with the government’s voracious appetite for outsourcing immigration oversight to third parties, the proposal reportedly contemplated fines or sponsor licence revocation for educational institutions that failed to ensure that their non-EEA graduates left the UK after completing their courses.

At present, non-EEA students may remain in the UK for between one week and four months after graduation in order to seek employment. In many cases, graduates who find a suitable job may be eligible to switch into a work-based visa while still in the UK.

‘Economic illiteracy’

From across the business, academic and political spectrum, the response to the home secretary’s proposal was swift and unequivocal.

Well-known entrepreneurs Sir James Dyson and Cobra Beer founder Lord Karan Bilimoria penned highly critical public responses, with the latter writing: ‘When politicians, like home secretary Theresa May, speak of moving towards “zero net student migration”… they are exhibiting a startling degree of economic illiteracy.’

From within the political arena, MSP Christian Allard of the Scottish National Party repeated the ‘illiteracy’ charge: ‘These ludicrous plans are economically illiterate as well as socially divisive – and are the exact opposite of what Scotland needs.’ Liberal Democrat business secretary Vince Cable cautioned that Conservative attempts to suppress foreign student numbers could damage an economically valuable asset, noting that ‘such a blunt instrument’ would not receive Lib Dem support.

Even more tellingly, it was chancellor George Osborne who was apparently behind the eventual sidelining of her plan.

A familiar tune

Cutting net migration figures by slashing non-EEA student numbers is by no means a new strategy for the government.

In April 2012, the coalition closed the popular Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) category of the points-based system. As the government’s own policy guidance described it, this route was designed to ‘retain the most able international graduates’ and ‘enhance the United Kingdom’s overall offer to international students’, enabling non-EEA graduates to freely seek employment without requiring a sponsor for up to two years after graduation.

Following the route’s closure, students were left with far fewer and, in many cases, much less attractive post-graduation options. Sponsorship under Tier 2, for example, can be expensive and time-consuming for potential employees and employers, while the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa, owing in part to many graduates’ lack of business history, is often out of reach for even the best and brightest.

With a growing skills shortage in the UK, sending away talented and well-trained foreign graduates simply to make good on a mistaken campaign promise is, to put it bluntly, breathtakingly foolish.

Moreover, in addition to the estimated £7bn that non-EEA student migrants bring to the UK, they offer broad cultural and social benefits by forging lasting, meaningful bonds with classmates, enriching the communities they live in and by being a key component of the UK’s ‘soft power’ abroad. Impressively, and illustrative of the latter point, as of 2014 one in 10 world leaders had studied in the UK.

Sensible policy

As the UK is increasingly viewed from abroad as ‘closed for business’ and ‘anti-immigrant’, ostracising foreign students will only serve to compound this issue. Therefore, in an effort to stem this worrying trend, the government could avail itself of a number of reasonable options.

First, the reintroduction of an unsponsored, post-study route under Tier 1 would be extremely attractive among non-EEA graduates and of obvious import to businesses and the UK economy alike. One possibility would be to tailor such a route to existing skills gaps in the UK. While this would, by its very nature, exclude and frustrate some graduates, it would make a reasoned economic argument against the proposal impossible.

Another option that already has significant and broad support would be to eliminate students from net migration statistics in the UK entirely. While the government has argued that such a move would violate international agreements that require individuals who stay in the UK for more than 12 months to be included in net migration figures, this would not preclude an alternative approach under which the government could simply remove non-EEA students from their domestic policy of reducing net migration.

Such measures would not only be backed by empirical economic data, the electorate would also support them. Indeed, while a majority of Britons favour reducing immigration in the UK, and while immigration overall remains an extremely contentious issue, a recent ICM poll found that nearly 80% do not view international students as immigrants and do not support a reduction in their numbers.

As a significant, broad-reaching commodity, students are invaluable to the UK. Sadly, this vital long-term resource is being devalued for short-term gains and perceived political points. To remain relevant, the UK must ensure that it neither stifles innovation nor tarnishes its international reputation as a socially open, economically sophisticated, and culturally vibrant destination for higher education.

Laura Devine, Laura Devine Solicitors