Theresa May faces backlash over her tough stance on international students. Higher education officials have called on her to stop using them as a political football in a Conservative Party power struggle. This follows the emergence of more visa restrictions for foreign students wishing to study in the UK.

May’s department had planned to force foreign learners to leave the UK upon graduation. However, these plans are said to have been blocked last week by the Chancellor, George Osborne.

Despite the block, it is now being reported that the Home Office are quietly proposing controversial chances to the rules on identity documents, branch campuses, private providers and attendance monitoring. The most recent allegations have caused outrage among higher education leaders.

Colin Riordan, chair of the UK Higher Education International Unit has questioned why the Home Office is working to make Britain “less inviting” to overseas students. He said: “The impression is that the Home Secretary sees international students as a problem and what explanation could there be for that when the evidence doesn’t seem to bear it out? I think the internal politics of the Conservative Party are a reasonable potential explanation”.

He went on to say he believed that May was positioning herself for a Conservative leadership battle that could be fought after the next election.

UEA’s Vice Chancellor, David Richardson, has also been critical of May’s tough stance: “We are acutely aware that many of our international postgraduate students not only bring with them a desire to learn from our academic experts, but equally they bring a different world view, a global picture of the developments of industry and technology”.
“This is invaluable to the UK economy, as well as to our universities in order for us to continue to play a significant part in the advancement of education worldwide”.

Evidence suggests that foreign students are beneficial to the economy rather than a detriment. Every year close to 500,000 students from 200 nations come to the UK to study, paying between £8–15,000 per year. This amounts to approximately £42m annually paid to British institutions, as well as contributing £12.5bn to the economy ever year.
If Conservative plans to restrict international student migration go ahead, 80% of UK universities look at losing between 2–14% of their total income.

With it unlikely that Prime Minister David Cameron will meet net migration targets before the next election, Theresa May continues to back the student visa crackdown. However, this April saw the first fall in International Student numbers in 29 years.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We continue to work with the education sector to ensure that any abuse of the student visa route is tackled effectively, while at the same time the reputation of our world-class universities is protected”.