Theresa May is facing a fresh parliamentary rebellion as Tory MPs join forces with Labour to prevent her infamous net migration target from imposing a cap on the number of overseas students.
A cross-party alliance tabled changes to the government’s Immigration Bill on Friday in a bid to hall the post-Brexit ‘freefall’ in foreign students coming to the UK.
The move, backed by nine select committee chairs including senior former Tory ministers, will guarantee that the Tory net migration target of 99,000 cannot be used to set any quota on those in higher education without explicit Commons approval.
There has been a sharp decline in overseas students coming to the UK in recent years, with campaigners blaming May’s immigration crackdown when she was Home Secretary.
And with Brexit looming, several MPs fear a further ‘chilling effect’ on the numbers of young people coming from abroad to study in the UK.
The proposed new clause - which raises the prospect of a major defeat unless ministers accept it - also restores the post-study work period to 2 years, after May slashed it to just four months in 2012.
The US, Canada and New Zealand offer international graduates the opportunity to work for up to three years after graduation, and Australia for up to four years.
The Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill completed its Committee stage in the House of Commons last month and is due to return to the House for its Report stage and Third Reading.
Parliament’s all-party international students group, co-chaired by former universities minister Jo Johnson and Labour’s shadow minister Paul Blomfield, said their new clause to the legislation had the backing of senior MPs.
Johnson said: “If we are serious about Global Britain, we must recognise that international students bring huge benefits to our universities, our local economies and our soft power.
“The difference students make to long-term net migration is small. The difference our new clause will make to our universities, to local economies and to Britain’s global reach will be highly significant. As we re-shape our immigration policy for the future, we must not miss this opportunity.”
The UK’s market share in international student education has fallen from 12 per cent in 2010 to 8 per cent in 2016, according to OECD figures, with flows of students from countries such as India sharply down on levels seen a decade ago.
Blomfield said: “We need a fresh approach to post-study work, which has been severely restricted since 2012 on the back of shoddy and flawed evidence.”
The new clause has the backing of a broad range of Conservative MPs, including Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, former universities minister Sam Gyimah, former Education secretaries Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening, former Brexit secretary David Davis, and former DfID secretaries Andrew Mitchell and Priti Patel.
Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK said: “International students want to come and study in the UK because of the high quality education our universities offer.
“It’s now time to change policy to send a more welcoming message by extending the opportunities for graduates to work in the UK to at least two years.
“International students make a very positive contribution to the UK, culturally, economically and by enriching the educational environment in our universities for all students.”