UK politicians call on PM May to stop targeting international students
May faces calls to exclude international students from her immigration target. Source: Reuters/Ben Stansall

Politicians from both sides of the House are urging UK Prime Minister Theresa May to remove international students from her immigration target – a plan to reduce the number of immigrants to the UK by tens of thousands per year – after new data reveals fewer than 5,000 international students overstay their student visas.

Based on recently created exit check at its borders, the new data shows only 4,600 flouted their visa expiry data and stayed on illegally, according to The GuardianPrevious government claims had placed the number close to 100,000.

Liberal Democrat party leader Vince Cable urged May to apologise for targeting international students, saying the Home Office continued using “phoney numbers” as “bogus evidence”.

“The consequences were very serious. I would hope they would not just apologise to the individual students, many of whom have paid large fees and even found themselves deported in some cases, but simply acknowledge the figures are grossly distorted and wrong,” Cable said.

The immigration target has been a commitment by the Conservative party since they came into power in 2010but has so far yet to be achieved. In the recent general elections, May reaffirmed the party’s pledge to bring down net immigration to the UK if her party won the elections.

Not everyone in May’s government are on board with including international students in the immigration target. Cabinet ministers Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson have spoken publicly students should not be included in the figures.

Immigration target risks UK’s reputation as a world class destination for international students. Source: Reuters/Darren Staples

The shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said: “I think there’s long been a consensus on the Labour side, but also among most Tories that think about these issues, that you shouldn’t have students in migration targets. The one person that wasn’t convinced was Theresa May and I think these figures show she’s wrong.”

And given the country is in the midst of exiting the European Union and will no longer be part of the bloc’s free movement of people, Conservative MP and former minister Bob Neill says the country ought to be “attracting talent” as its higher education sector is a “big selling point”.

“A lot of these people will go back but have connections with the UK and that works in our country’s interest in terms of trade. It is classic soft power,” Neill said.

However, May’s former adviser, Nick Timothy, tweeted the debate isn’t about those who are overstaying illegally. Instead, the focus is on international students who graduate from UK universities and subsequently stay on in the UK legally.

“Exit check data shows relatively few students overstay their visa. That’s good. But debate is about how many stay in the country legally once their studies have finished. That’s why they need to be included in the immigration stats and why there is a legitimate policy debate about whether their freedom to stay and work after study should be controlled or not,” he said.

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