MPs warn student visa proposals could 'cripple' sector
A cross-party group of MPs has heavily criticised the government's proposals to reduce the number of international students entering the UK.
The Home Affairs select committee strongly recommended the government abandon plans to raise the level of English required to gain a visa.
The MPs also said there was evidence the plans were based on flawed data and risked crippling a thriving industry.
The Home Office said it wants to make the system less open to abuse.
The government has pledged to reduce net migration from its current level of 220,000 to tens of thousands annually by 2015.
In December it published a consultation document outlining a series of proposals to tighten the entry requirements for non-EU students.
"The government has stated that it does not wish to target legitimate students but, at the same time, we would caution against measures which could be detrimental to a thriving, successful industry," the MPs wrote.
They noted that the training and education of international students was an industry worth up to £40bn annually, and the second biggest contributor to the UK's net balance of payments.
The MPs argued that many students come to the UK on "pathway" courses designed to improve their English and prepare them for university study.
Raising the required English level would affect recruitment on such courses, the MPs said.
They strongly recommended that the government not raise the English requirement for any approved institutions.
The report also questioned the use of a specific set of data - the International Passenger Survey - used to develop the plans.
"Generating policy based on flawed evidence could cripple the UK education sector. In the case of international students this could mean a significant revenue and reputational loss to the UK," said the committee's chairman, Keith Vaz.
The MPs also said they were "not persuaded" that students should even be classed as migrants, given that many do not seek to settle permanently.
They recommended that the government drop its plan to stop allowing international students to apply to stay and work for two years after they have completed a post-graduate course.
"We would ideally suggest that the system be maintained," they said, pointing out that the UK's "main competitors" in the higher education sector used post-study work options to "attract the best students".
The committee also said that plans to force students to return to their home countries - which could mean closing bank accounts, moving out of accommodation and removing children from school - to apply for a visa for a second course were "too onerous".
They were "likely to lead to a decline in the retention rate for the high quality students the UK's research facilities most desire", the report said.
"There has been a consistent tendency, under both current and previous governments, to rush through complex changes to the immigration system... such unnecessary haste leads to poor decision-making," the committee warned.
The proposals relate to prospective students from outside the EU applying for visas under what is known as Tier 4 of the points-based system.
Some 334,000 such visas were issued in 2010, a 2% decrease on the previous year, the report said.
Immigration Minister Damian Green said the government recognised the important contribution that international students make to the UK economy, "but the old student visa regime neither controlled immigration nor protected legitimate students from being exploited by poor quality colleges".
"We want to refocus the student visa system as a temporary route and one that is not open to abuse," he said.
But Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group representing new universities, said the report was "damning".
"MPs have accepted the overwhelming evidence put to them which demonstrated these proposals would damage a global market for the UK which they estimate to be worth £40billion to the economy," he said.
"In the light of this report, it would be completely bizarre if Home Office ministers proceeded with their ill-conceived and damaging plans," he added.
Steve Smith, president of the vice-chancellors' body Universities UK, said he was pleased the report recognised "the likely unintended consequences" of the proposals.
He said international students contribute more than £5bn a year to the UK economy.
"At a time of financial austerity, this issue is of immeasurable importance to the UK," he said.
"Arbitrary cuts to international student numbers will lead to reductions in income and jobs and could impact on our capacity to provide some courses, particularly in the fields of science and engineering," he said.
However, Sir Andrew Green, chairman of campaign group Migration Watch UK, said: "The government must keep its nerve and crack down on abuse while minimising any collateral damage to the education sector."
The Russell Group of leading research universities warned that even the perception that the UK does not welcome international students "can be very damaging".
"At a time when universities are facing severe funding cuts, it would be very unhelpful if visa restrictions were allowed to cut off international students as a vital income source," said director general Wendy Piatt.
NUS international students officer Christina Yan-Zhang called on the government to reconsider its proposals: "The extent to which the committee had to find 'least worst' options in the face of overwhelming government desire to push the plans through demonstrated just how wrong-headed the current proposals were."
Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK, which represents 450 language study centres said the committee was "absolutely right" in its analysis of the "potentially disastrous consequences of some of the Government's proposals".