A damaging cabinet rift has emerged between the home secretary and three senior colleagues, including the chancellor and foreign secretary, over stripping overseas students from the government’s net migration target.
Philip Hammond has written to the prime minister asking for foreign students to be removed from the target, while Theresa May insists that they should remain.
He is backed by George Osborne, the chancellor, and Sajid Javid, the business secretary, who believe that overseas students should not be included.
The damaging division reflects growing tensions among the most senior ministers over the government’s decision to repeat a promise to set a target of reducing net migration from its current 330,000 to less than 100,000 by the next general election.
A Whitehall source said last night that the chancellor, foreign secretary and business secretary did not think overseas students should be part of the target and most of those coming to the UK departed after four years.
The source said that the three ministers did not think that students should be treated the same as other immigrants who come for much longer and settle because they were a major economic benefit to the UK, which had a reputation for world-class higher education.
Including them in the target was damaging to the UK’s image because it gave the impression that overseas students were not welcome.
Another Whitehall source said that the government had got itself completely hung up on a target that, if met, could damage the UK’s reputation and the higher education sector.
Funds from overseas students are vital to the financial health of the best universities, cross-subsidise domestic students and help to boost the UK’s reputation abroad, the source said.
The opposition leaves Mrs May fighting an uphill battle to keep students as part of the target. The position taken by David Cameron, who was accused by one minister of sitting on the fence over the issue, will be crucial.
Friends of Mrs May say that she is strongly opposed to removing foreign students from the target and that she has warned that such a move would be seen by the public as “fiddling the figures” in an area of major public concern.
The split comes as the Home Office is planning for an autumn push to find ways to drive down student numbers by making the UK a much less attractive destination for tens of thousands of young people, particularly those from outside the EU.
Latest figures show that in the year to the end of March the number of overseas students coming to the UK for more than a year rose from 176,000 to 188,000. Almost three quarter of them were non-EU citizens, with the largest numbers coming from China and India.
The Home Office said that the official figures show that while 137,000 non-EU students came to Britain last year only around 41,000 left, leaving a gap of 96,000. Migration experts said that the 96,000 figure needed to be treated with caution as the people arriving and leaving were in different cohorts.
Mrs May is considering a range of tougher rules for overseas university students, including increasing the amount of savings they must have for the first year of their course from the current £1,000-plus per month.
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