'Harmful' UK student visa policy 'baffles' top academic
The UK's policy on student visas is baffling, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University has told an audience of academics.
Prof Andrew Hamilton said when he travelled abroad "one question persists - why has the UK adopted a visa system so hostile to student entry?"
"I do my best to answer but, frankly, the question baffles me as well."
The Home Office said the idea the visa system deterred international students was "not borne out by the facts".
But Prof Hamilton said the policy of limiting international student numbers was now harming the UK.
"For the first time in decades, the number of international students at our universities has dropped, most markedly from India," he said.
"Why are we doing this to them - and to ourselves?"
The government's policy of tightening up the student visa system has been criticised as damaging to the ability of UK universities to recruit economically valuable international students.
Prof Hamilton used his annual oration to the university to urge political parties to end student migrant targets and to use research-based evidence in forming election policies, particularly on immigration.
He cited recent research by Oxford's Migration Observatory, which, he argued, showed the public did not link overseas student numbers with immigration issues.
"Study is the least frequent answer given when the public are asked what they consider the motives for migration to be," Prof Hamilton said.
"Student migration simply isn't an issue for them and there are few votes in restricting overseas student numbers.
"There are signs that this reality is beginning to dawn across the political spectrum - something to be welcomed and encouraged ahead of the election."
He added that university research could help shed light on "complex political and policy challenges" and "defy the temptation to reach for simple or simplistic answers".
"In essence, we can provide the data, the understanding and the analysis to underpin arguments and the possible solutions for the problems we all face," he said.
Prof Hamilton called for more recognition of the huge public benefit that higher education brought to the UK - "sadly benefit which far outstrips the level of public investment in our sector".
He noted that UK public investment in higher education stood at 0.9% of gross domestic product (GDP), "one of the lowest in Europe", and urged politicians to come up with "properly developed policies on higher education", which would benefit not only students and universities, but would also be "hugely beneficial to the public good".
A Home Office spokesman said there had been "significant increases in students from countries such as China, Brazil and Malaysia".
"The UK is open to the brightest and best and we have been very clear that there is no limit on the number of international students who can study in the UK.
"Whilst the government has not shied away from taking tough action on abuse, we continue to welcome genuine students to our world-class universities.
"The UK remains the second most popular destination for international higher education students, after the USA, with latest figures showing a rise of 5% for university visa applications and an 8% increase for Russell Group universities."