What chance of policy change on immigration?

At a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham yesterday James Brokenshire MP, Minister of State for Immigration was questioned on the Government’s stance of including international students in the Government’s official net migration figures. When robustly challenged about the logic and efficacy of this policy, he made clear that, despite growing calls for policy change, he was ruling out excluding international students from the net migration figures.

So what are the chances for a policy change on this issue? Could there still be some light at the end of the tunnel? Are the Conservatives really not for turning on this issue? What evidence, chatter and policy positioning can we look that might give us a clue to the future?

There is growing evidence to show current immigration policy is damaging UK universities ability to recruit international students from outside the European Union. Official figures have shown that the UK higher education sector as a whole experienced two consecutive years of falling overseas entrants, in both 2011–12 and 2012–13. The number of Indian students commencing courses in the UK almost halved in two years.

A new report, published last week from Universities UK, revealed that the number of Indian students coming to study in the UK is continuing to fall sharply. This is set against a backdrop of rising international student numbers in competitor countries, particularly those such as Australia and Canada who are backing ambitious and aggressive expansion strategies with progressive immigration policies. As the international student market grows globally, the UK’s market share is falling.

There is evidence to show that the British public do not see international students as immigrants and there is strong public support for international students staying on to work in the UK after their studies. A recent nationally representative poll of 2,111 people conducted by ICM for Universities UK and British Future revealed that the public do not see international students as immigrants and believe they bring money into the local economy.

Interestingly, as this infographic highlights, support for international students was particularly strong amongst Conservative voters with 81% in favour of allowing international students to stay on and work after they finish their degree. The polling also showed that 80% of Conservative voters do not view international students coming to study at a UK university as immigrants.

At another fringe debate at the Conservative Party conference yesterday, former Universities Minister David Willetts MP commented that despite hearing regular concerns raised about immigration on the doorstep from his constituents, he had never heard a concern voiced about growing numbers of international students.

Although David Willetts hasn’t publicly backed the call to remove international students from the net migration target, he regularly and openly highlights the battles he fought, when Universities Minister, with the Home Office about immigration policies. He is also President of the progressive Conservative pressure group Bright Blue that supports the removal of students from the net migration figures. Leading liberal Conservatives Mark Field MP and Lord Michael Heseltine have also recently voiced their strong support for policy change on this issue.

There is strong and vocal support and policy pledges from other political parties to remove international students from net migration figures. The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP is on record confirming that the Liberal Democrats favour a change in policy, that they would implement post General Election 2015 if they were not tied by the coalition agreement with the Conservatives.

Following strong support from successive shadow ministers in Labour’s Higher Education team, the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Copper MP confirmed that a Labour Government would remove international students from the net migration figures if they are elected in May 2015. There has even been news over the weekend from their conference in Doncaster that UKIP has joined calls to remove international students from the immigration figures. The Conservatives are being outflanked on this issue from both left and right.

James Brokenshire’s comments yesterday suggest that the Conservative Party position is now entrenched on this issue for this Parliament. However, with public opinion and other political parties supporting a policy change and growing evidence to suggest that the damaging the UK’s ability to recruit international students for the benefit of universities, the economy and society we should not count out a policy U-turn in the next parliament were the Conservatives to be in Government. Pressure is now mounting on the Conservatives to change what is an unpopular policy.

Will James Brokenshire’s policy pledge that international students will remain in the net migration figures also be included in the Conservatives’ manifesto for the 2015 General Election? I wouldn’t bet on it. We may see the Conservatives omitting to mention this in the manifesto and thus allowing themselves wriggle room for a policy U-turn after the election.

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