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The PM insists overseas students should continue to be included in the net migration figures, but some in the Cabinet disagree.
Boris Johnson has risked reopening Cabinet divisions about foreign students after refusing three times to support the Prime Minister’s stance.
The Foreign Secretary was asked repeatedly if he agreed with Theresa May that international students should continue to be included in the net migration figures – which the Government is trying to bring down.
Mr Johnson refused to explicitly back the policy in an interview, saying he was in favour of “no limits” on their numbers and that students from abroad should continue to be welcomed at Britain’s universities.
The interview came after official figures yesterday showed the number of foreign students dropped by 27,000 to 139,000 in the year to March.
Asked about Mrs May’s stance, on which she has been firm since she was at the Home Office, Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4: “I am content with the success we are having in attracting international students, and also ensuring by the way, that those international students do not overstay their period here and do the right thing.
“They are a great feature of higher education funding and we should continue to welcome them here.”
Pressed on whether he agreed with Mrs May, he said: “The PM rightly points out that that’s the way they are currently counted.” Asked for a third time, he said: “That’s the way it is done.”
Mr Johnson publicly called for foreign students to be removed from the net migration numbers in December 2016, saying they contributed billions in higher education fees and brought “massive benefit” to the country.
Mrs May has stood firm on the subject, despite the opposition of much of her Cabinet. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was slapped down by Number 10 when he suggested the policy may be watered down almost a year ago.
Liam Fox, the Trade Secretary, revealed there was an “ongoing argument” about the subject in cabinet in March this year, when he appeared before a House of Lords committee – and suggested he sympathised with Mr Johnson.
But a source told Sky News there would be no attempt by Cabinet ministers to ambush the Prime Minister into a u-turn, due to concerns that changing the way migration is calculated would be seen as an attempt to “hoodwink” the public.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to examine the impact of international students on jobs and the economy, and it will report back next year.
But Government insiders played down the idea that it would lead to a change in policy. A source said: “The PM has always been firm on this and it’s not going to change, despite what Cabinet ministers think privately.”
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has recently called for the target to reduce net migration to tens of thousands to be dropped altogether and students dropped from it.
Estimates had previously suggested that as many as 100,000 foreign students a year overstayed their visas, based on an International Passenger Survey at airports and ports. However, statisticians said this should be treated with caution.
New official data released yesterday, based on recently instituted exit checks, suggested that in fact only 4,600 students overstayed their visas last year.
Separately, figures released to Sky News by the Home Office this month under Freedom of Information laws revealed that only around 5,000 foreign students a year on average are granted a general visa to remain in the UK after finishing their studies.
The figures show just under 20,000 were permitted to stay between 2012 and 2016, rising from 2,745 in 2012/13 to 6,205 in 2015/16, on a Tier 2 visa – intended for those from outside the EU who have been offered a skilled job.