The government’s student migration policy is ideological and irrational

Our government is obsessed with migration. So obsessed it’s willing to implement irrational and harmful policies to bring down the net migration figure.

No, I’m not talking about the Rwanda policy — although as an example of an irrational policy, I could be. I’m talking about the government’s student migration policy.

I want to make an evidence-based and positive case for the migration of international students to the UK, on the basis that this group is crucial to the UK’s outstanding science and technology ecosystem.

The most recent development in the Conservative party’s campaign to reduce the number of international students in the UK came into effect on January 1st. The new rules will prevent most international students from bringing their families to the UK while they study.

Additionally, the government announced it would “review” the UK Student Work Visa programme.  Finally, amid the performative noise about Rwanda, the government quietly increased the Immigration Healthcare Surcharge by a whopping 66%.

International students are a powerhouse of the modern economy. They bring crucial talent and expertise in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to the UK, cementing the world-leading status of our higher education system, and contributing greatly to our economy.

We should be encouraging more international students to study here, not fewer. And we should give them every opportunity to stay and contribute to our country after their studies.

Imagine you’re a top-class British engineering graduate with a family. You’ve spent a couple of years in industry, but now you want to explore a Masters. You’ve had an offer from the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Both TUM and Germany would be lucky to have your skills, but you can’t take up the offer because you can’t leave your family behind.

This is the dilemma we’re creating for talented people around the world – who we’d be lucky to have in our world-leading universities, and our economy. We’re sending a message to talented young people around the world, who will be at the forefront of innovation in science and technology over the next decade, that the UK doesn’t want them.

Of course, we won’t see international students ditch the UK overnight following the latest rule change. But we’re paving the way for a gradual decline in which STEM talent dodges the UK in favour of the US, Europe, or just about anywhere else.

Beyond the loss of talent and expertise in our universities and workforce, reducing our number of international students will hit the finances of our universities hard. UK universities are already struggling, with the IFS reporting that spending per student has fallen back to the low point of 2011.

International students provide roughly a fifth of our universities’ income, which helps to subsidise costs for students from the UK and drive forward vital research. So, on a purely financial basis, we need them.

So, what’s the argument for discouraging international students? They fill up our limited housing stock, contribute to backlogs in the NHS, and come here to sit on the couch watching daytime telly, right?

Admittedly, I might agree with the first point, but that’s more a failure of our planning system than our student migration policy. The second two points couldn’t be further from the truth. International students are, by their nature, mostly young and healthy, and they’re incredibly hard-working and productive. Having spent a small fortune to be educated, they are highly motivated to ensure they get high-paying, productive jobs that pay significant amounts of tax.

The fact is, the government’s student migration policy isn’t based on logic, reasoning, or evidence. It’s driven by ideology, vote-chasing, and the prime minister’s desire to cut immigration at all costs. Student migration is an easy target for a government that isn’t willing to have an open and honest conversation with the country about migration.

Meanwhile, this policy directly contradicts Rishi Sunak’s stated desire to make the UK a science and technology superpower. Yes, the government recently announced an investment in the tech sector via its Autumn Statement. But without a thriving research ecosystem (which depends, in part, on international students), it’s all hot air.

The UK has a proud reputation as a hub for research and innovation, and if we want to maintain that status, we need to eradicate the idea that international students are a burden. Bad policy is bad policy, and it’s time we took an evidenced approach to student migration – not an ideological one. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.