Foreign students could be removed from net migration figures in a sweeping review of the UK’s immigration system after Brexit, Number 10 has indicated.
Theresa May consistently resisted efforts to exclude students from the figures during her time as home secretary, but Downing Street said the issue would be examined as part of a wholesale review of the immigration system.
A Number 10 spokesperson said the new system would be aimed at continuing to attract the “brightest and best” migrants to the UK, the Press Association reported.
The spokesperson’s comments came after Chancellor Philip Hammond told MPs that the debate about whether students count towards the net migration figures should be decided based on public perception.
They claimed most people were concerned about migrants seeking entry-level, low-skilled jobs.
The Number 10 spokesperson said: “The issue of migrant numbers that will come into the country, be it student or otherwise, is an issue that will have to be very closely looked at by the Government as we set about establishing a new system.”
Asked if the Prime Minister wanted to exempt students from the net migration figures, the spokesperson said: “What happens in terms of the migration process that we establish as a result of exiting the European Union is a matter that will be very closely looked at, scrutinised and discussed in great detail by the Government and within the Government.”
They added: “The Cabinet is absolutely united in its intent to tackle the issue of migration, to deliver on that demand from the British public and to reduce migration to sustainable levels.”
The Government is committed to reducing net migration to the “tens of thousands”, although the target has never been met since the Tories entered office in 2010.
The issue of immigration policy was “very much a subject for review as we go through the process of exiting the European Union”, the spokesperson said.
“Clearly the Home Office will take a leading view on that but it is a cross-government effort to come up with a system that ensures we have control on the number of migrants coming into the UK, but that we still continue to attract the brightest and the best migrants into the UK.”
Asked if the issue of foreign students was subject to review, the spokesperson said: “The whole issue of migration is subject to review.”
Immigration lawyers have suggested a regional visa system, which could make it easier for cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle continue to recruit foreign workers.
The Number 10 spokesperson said: “There are all kinds of ideas that are bandied around as to what the migration system may be. This will be incredibly closely looked at as we go through the process of exiting the EU.
“Across government, various types of systems will be analysed and we will eventually come up with the best system that works for the best interests of Britain.”
At the Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday, the Chancellor said: “As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down to the tens of thousands it is, in my view, essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects our economy and protects the vital interests of our economy.
“It is the case that student visas have been abused in the past. The previous home secretary did some sterling work in tightening up on bogus educational institutions.”
He said decisions about what was covered by the net migration target should be guided by public perception.
Mr Hammond told MPs: “When the public tells us loudly and clearly that they have a problem with levels of migration, it is very clear to me that they are not talking about computer programmers, brain surgeons, bankers, senior managers... possibly students.
“But they are talking about people competing for entry-level jobs with people in the UK who, perhaps, have a level of skills that means they only have access to those kind of jobs.”