Universities will go bankrupt if the government shuts out foreign students in a frantic bid to cut immigration, an adviser has warned – with poorer areas most at risk.
The chair of the Migration Advisory Committee raised the alarm after No 10 – under pressure from Tory MPs to act on rising numbers – said it is exploring excluding overseas students from “low-quality” degrees.
One suggestion is they would only be allowed a place at an “elite” university, which could mean only London, Cambridge and Oxford, Brian Bell said.
The King’s College professor pointed out foreign students keep many universities afloat in less prosperous places, asking: “What about Newcastle? What about the north east, the north west, Scotland?”
He warned the government: “If you’re interested in the levelling up agenda, you might want to worry about harming universities around Britain.”
Prof Bell told BBC Radio 4 a harsh crackdown “could send many universities over the edge”, without a “massive increase” in fees paid by British students.
“Most universities, for most courses, lose money on teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students,” he said.
“If you close down the international route, I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”
Labour also hit out at the wider damage to Britain from excluding overseas students who would go on to become “ambassadors” for the UK after returning home.
Anneliese Dodds, the party’s chair, said: “When we look at our university sector, it’s responsible for some of the biggest amounts of export revenue of any part of our economy.
“It is important that we have that proud tradition of students coming from other countries, to our nation to study, they then can become ambassadors actually, for our country, when they go back home.”
And Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Cutting international student numbers would run directly counter to the government’s strategy to rebuild the economy – given the huge financial contribution they make to every part of the country.”
Downing Street said no decisions had been taken, while declining to define what constitutes a “low-quality” degree.
A spokeswoman said: “Of course we support our universities. They’re some of the very best in the world. And of course will always act in the best interest of the UK.
“We’re looking at the issue of student dependants and the quality of degrees and we’re doing that following the [migration] figures released yesterday.”