Universities could go bankrupt if the Government limits the number of foreign students in a bid to bring down net migration, an adviser on immigration policy has warned.
Rishi Sunak’s potential plan to clamp down on international students taking “low-quality” degrees could “send many universities over the edge”, particularly in poorer regions, the chairman of the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee said.
Professor Brian Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Most universities for 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’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”
He said that London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if overseas students were only allowed places at “elite” universities, asking: “But what about Newcastle, what about the North East, the North West, Scotland?”
“If you’re interested in the levelling-up agenda, you might want to worry about harming universities around Britain,” the King’s College economics professor added.
He pointed out that it is not just an immigration policy but also an education policy, as it could lead to a “massive increase” in British students’ fees to make up for the loss of foreign students’ payments.
A No 10 spokesman declined to say what constitutes a “low quality” degree when pressed to provide a Government definition on Friday.
Asked about concerns that the potential policy will damage universities and the UK economy, the official said: “Of course we support our universities – they’re some of the very best in the world – and of course we will always act in the best interest of the UK.”
The Prime Minister is considering a crackdown on international students bringing dependants and restricting admissions to top universities, Downing Street said on Thursday after net migration to the UK climbed to a record half a million.
His official spokesman insisted Mr Sunak is “fully committed” to bringing overall immigration levels down and blamed “unprecedented and unique circumstances” for the record high.
The official said: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees.”
This would be in line with proposals being explored by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who has previously complained about foreign students “bringing in family members who can piggyback on to their student visa” and “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.
Professor Bell said restricting the number of family members students can bring to the UK is “certainly worth looking into”.
“If you’re an undergraduate student you’re not allowed to bring a dependant, but students doing Master’s and PhD programmes are allowed to bring dependants and that’s gone up from – it used to be very small, about 20,000 visas a year – and it’s now up to about 70,000 or 80,000.
“That’s an area where the Government may want to think about whether the offer is right … particularly for one-year Master’s programmes it’s perhaps less clear why we should be allowing dependants.”
Around 504,000 more people are estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months to June 2022, up sharply from 173,000 in the year to June 2021.
The estimates were compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which said the jump was driven by “unique” factors including visa schemes for Ukrainians and Hong Kong citizens, and students arriving from outside the European Union.
People arriving on study visas accounted for the largest proportion of long-term immigration of non-EU nationals, at 277,000, or 39% of the total, according to the ONS.
The proposal was also met with derision in Scotland, with Deputy First Minister John Swinney describing the move as “stupid” and the country’s higher education minister Jamie Hepburn saying: “Any such proposals from the UK Government would be deeply damaging to Scotland’s world-class university sector.
“International students who come to our world-class institutions make an important and valuable contribution to the Scottish economy, our educational environment and society.
“We remain absolutely committed to our universities, our students, and free higher education for Scots domiciled students – based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.”