Some MPs have been condemned of "cheap and pathetic gestures" in their approach to student visas. The director-general of the Institute of Directors, Simon Walker, said he was "appalled" by how overseas students had been caught up in targets for reducing immigration into the UK. He added that univesities were "victims of political point-scoring".
Some MPs have been accused of "cheap and pathetic gestures" in their approach to student visas. The director-general of the Institute of Directors, Simon Walker, said he was "appalled" by how overseas students had been caught up in targets for reducing immigration into the UK. He added that universities were "victims of political point-scoring".
James Brokenshire, Immigration Minister, said that the rules on student visas "strike the right balance".
A conference at Regent's University in London examined the visa system for overseas students. Conference speakers included members of the Home Affairs Select Committee and representatives of the government, business, schools and universities.
The conference came in the wake of warnings from universities that the student visa process has become too rigorous and is putting people off. University leaders have lobbied for students not to be included in net migration figures.
The conference was a meeting of different sectors. However it did not prove to be a meeting of minds.
Strong calls have been made by university representatives for a different approach to visas for overseas students. Mr Brokenshire however, asserted that many of their concerns were based on "myths and misconceptions".
The director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, Vivienne Stern, said that the decline in applications from Indian students to UK universities was a "serious cause for concern". The UK Higher Education International Unit promotes the UK's universities overseas.
Stern said that there needed to be a much clearer recognition that, in terms of academic staff and international partnerships, universities were global enterprises - this also meant an international student body. But in the UK she said that this was being jeopardised by immigration policies.
Ms Stern said that an over-reliance on recruiting students from China, was sustaining overseas student numbers.
Mr Walker, head of the Institute of Directors, and representing business leaders, made strong criticism of the role of politicians in student visa policy.
'Business common sense'
Mr Walker said that it was not "evil or racist" to voice concerns about immigration. However, he believes it was irresponsible for politicians to use these concerns to put up barriers to recruiting overseas students. He added that he was "appalled when politicians make cheap and pathetic gestures to what they think is public opinion" and that it "damages this country in every sense".
Mr Walker said that it was "business common sense" for the UK, in a global economy, to be open to attract the brightest students from overseas.
Aldwyn Cooper, vice chancellor of Regent's University, emphasized the benefit of "soft power" to the UK from overseas students. He said that this 'soft power' was being "substantially eroded" by the current attitude towards overseas students. He added that there would not be as many world leaders educated in UK universities as in the current generation.
Alp Mehmet from Migration Watch questioned whether it was really the visa process that had caused a dip in overseas applications last year. He wondered whether it was more about the level of tuition fees being charged by universities.
The chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, said the debate on immigration "simply cannot be ignored". He stressed that immigration was a "key issue for all political parties". However, he added, that "students are not migrants" and that there needed to be an "intelligent, factual debate" about student visas.
'Play by the rules'
The immigration minister made it clear that no change in policy was likely to be forthcoming regardless of whether these leaders were pushing for a change. He emphasised that there was "no cap on the number of international students". He noted thaat claims to the contrary were fuelling "myths and misconceptions". He stated that the inclusion of students in migration figures was in compliance with how the United Nations measured immigration and it was a measure used in countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada.
Mr Brokenshire said that migrants, whether students or otherwise, had an impact on public services. He reminded the conference audience of the "money-making scams" that had operated in this sector, with estimates of 50,000 students in bogus colleges in 2009-10.
The government had had to intervene to protect not only legitimate students, but also the reputation of UK higher education, he said, with 750 private colleges stopped from recruiting overseas students.
The tightening of visa policy was "sensible, long overdue reforms".
Mr Brokenshire emphasized: "For those playing by the rules, the UK is enthusiastically open."