The vast majority of Britons want to maintain or increase the numbers of foreign students coming to the UK because of the multibillion-pound boost they give to the economy, increasing pressure on Theresa May to stop including them in immigration figures.
Almost half the public back the current numbers of international students coming to the UK each year, when they are told of the economic benefits, while a further 24 per cent of people want to increase the figure, the findings of a ComRes poll reveal.
Just one in four people regard foreign students as “immigrants”, even though they are currently counted in the net migration figures that the Government has vowed to slash to tens of thousands a year.
The policy has been blamed for a drive by the Home Office to tighten the rules governing student visas, with foreign students currently classed as long-term migrants. The Independent and the Open Britain group are running a Drop the Target campaign calling for the goal to be scrapped.
According to the latest figures, 596,000 immigrants moved to the UK in the year to September last year, with net migration running at 273,000. Of the 596,000, 134,000 were students, a figure that dropped sharply by 41,000 on the previous 12 months.
The survey of 4,000 adults, carried out for Universities UK, found that 64 per cent believe international students have a positive impact on the local economies of the towns and cities where they study and only 18 per cent think they have a negative impact on the national economy.
Some 61 per cent believe the students have a valuable social and cultural impact on university towns and cities, while 58 per cent agree that they help to create jobs.
Three-quarters say that when international students graduate, it is better that they work in the UK for a period to contribute to the economy rather than return immediately to their home country. Only 25 per cent want them to return immediately.
Perceptions of overseas students are more favourable in Scotland than in England and Wales. Two in three Scots (67 per cent) think their economic contribution helps to create jobs, higher than people in England (57 per cent) and Wales (59 per cent).
A recent study by Oxford Economics found that foreign students generate £26bn for the economy and their spending supported 206,600 jobs in university towns and cities.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “The poll shows the public recognises the valuable social and cultural impact international students have in regions across the country. But, while the UK Government continues to count international students as long-term migrants in its target to reduce migration, there is a continued pressure to reduce their numbers, adding to the perception that they are not welcome here.”
Dame Julia said the latest enrolment figures showed a worrying decline in foreign students in recent years, while competitors such as the US and Australia were accepting more and classed them as non-permanent or temporary residents.
She added: “If the UK wants to remain a top destination for international students, we need a new immigration policy that encourages them to choose the UK. As the UK prepares to exit the EU, it is more important than ever that we project a welcoming message to talented people from across the world.”
Ms May has rebuffed calls from several cabinet ministers for overseas students to be excluded from the immigration statistics. Her allies insist that including them increases the pressure on universities to clamp down on bogus applications from economic migrants pretending to be students.
Ms May said last week: “We want to bring [net migration] down to sustainable levels. We have said those sustainable levels are the tens of thousands. The reason we want to bring it down is because of the impact it has on people, particularly in relation to the effect on jobs and incomes at the lower end of the income scale.”
She added: “Students are in the net migration figures because it is in the international definition of net migration and we abide by the same definition that is used by other countries around the world.”
Ben Howlett, a Conservative MP and leading supporter of Open Britain, said: “The public want the Government to roll out the red carpet for hard-working international students who bring huge benefits to our economy, education system and country.
“They should not be counted in the immigration statistics. Subjecting international students to a completely arbitrary tens of thousands immigration target makes no economic or political sense. Drop the target and open the doors of our universities to international students.”
The Independent and Open Britain are urging for the Government to drop its target to cut net migration to tens of thousands of people each year. It is divisive and will harm our economy.
If you agree, please sign our petition to call on the Government to Drop The Target: