Cracking down on foreign students entering the country would put universities at risk of going bust, the Government’s chief migration adviser has warned.
Professor Brian Bell, chairman of the migration advisory committee, said moves to bar foreign students from lower-ranked universities or courses could deprive the institutions of vital income, force them into bankruptcy and undermine the Government’s levelling-up agenda.
However, he said the Government was right to consider limiting foreign students' right to bring in relatives after a surge in the number of dependents arriving in the past three years.
His comments follow the shock data on Thursday that showed net migration had hit a post-war high of 504,000 in the year to June, with more than 1.3 million visas granted to foreign nationals seeking to live, study or work in the UK.
Home Office figures showed that overseas students jumped 77 per cent to a high of 476,389. One-fifth of them were granted visas to bring in a record 116,000 family members.
This represented a seven-fold increase on the 16,047 dependents granted visas in 2019, when only six per cent of overseas students brought their partners or children to the UK.
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said “all options” were being considered including limiting the number of dependents and curbing access to “low-quality” degrees.
Professor Bell said universities had expanded the number of places offered to international students largely because domestic student fees had been frozen for a decade or more.
This meant the higher fees paid by overseas undergraduates and postgraduates cross-subsidised the losses on home students.
“You have to be very careful what you do because of cross-subsidisation from international students. It could send more universities over the edge,” he said.
“You cannot think of this as an immigration policy. It is also an education policy. For example, are you going to massively increase the fees that UK students pay to offset the losses if you close down the international student route?”
Asked on BBC Radio if this meant universities going bankrupt, Professor Bell said: “Yeah. Most universities and 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 am not sure how the university continues to survive.”
He also warned it could undermine the Government's levelling up agenda as it could disproportionately affect universities outside the south east. "If you focus on elite universities, then London, Oxford and Cambridge all do very well but what about Newcastles, the north west and Scotland,"he said.
Calls for investigation
He said the surge in the number of dependents brought by foreign students was, however, an area where the Government “may want to think about whether that offer is right in terms of being able to bring in dependents.”
He said it was particularly the case for one-year masters programmes “where it is perhaps less clear why you should be allowing dependents to come in in the same way”.
Nigerians brought in as many dependents as there were students, with 51,648 relatives to 50,980 students. Libyans brought in more dependents than students, with 467 relatives to 305 students. Other nations with at least one relative for every two students were Sri Lanka, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Iran.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said the increase should be investigated because of the risk visas may be used as a “means of entering a country where it might otherwise be difficult.”
Madeleine Sumption, director of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, said it could be a result of expanding student numbers drawing in countries where people traditionally bring more dependents such as Nigeria and India.
India has become the biggest source of foreign students in UK universities, overtaking China, whose students bring hardly any dependents. The 127,814 Indian students, by contrast, brought in 33,239 relatives.