There is always a tension between the desire to restrict immigration and the economic imperative to recruit more international students to study in the UK. Yesterday's announcement by Alan Johnson of his plans to introduce further restrictions on overseas students, with shrieks of 'not enough' from his Conservative shadow, is in severe danger of reducing our competitiveness in a market where Britain is already fighting to retain market share.
To be fair, much of what Johnson proposed is sensible enough. A clampdown on those with poor English or those bringing dependents in for short courses seems unarguable. But, the severe tightening in student working hours is already being misreported in the Indian press (it applies apparently only to sub-degree courses though this was not made clear yesterday) and will cause confusion in the international education market.
A British Council report last year showed that with over half a million overseas students, the UK rivals the US as a top international student destination. Their numbers, which have grown as a result of major recruitment drives, include 55,000 Chinese students and 35,000 Indian students. Those students who are not from within the EU must pay full fees, and the proportion of postgraduates from overseas at 36% is much higher than the 13% of undergraduates who are from abroad. Both groups make a huge contribution to the UK economy and our innovation and science bases and are worth at least £5.5 billion to our economy.
Now, as students will find that they are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week in the USA and Australia, those countries could gain an additional competitive edge, particularly on sub-degree courses that lead directly on to degree courses. This decision could cost our economy dear at a time when universities and colleges are already facing cutbacks. Ministers need to think again about the messages they are sending - and their impact on a growing export market.