Theresa May in a migration policy meltdown as foreign student overstayer numbers out by tens of thousands

Catherine Neilan
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Theresa May has long included international students in the migration stats (Source: Getty)

Prime minister Theresa May’s controversial student migration policy has been thrown into disarray following revelations that the government has been dramatically overstating the number of students who remain in the UK following their studies. Calls are now growing for an inquiry into how the official statistics could have been so misleading.

May’s repeated claims, both as Prime Minister and home secretary, that as many as 100,000 foreign students overstayed their visas was shown to be wildly inaccurate, after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published new analysis estimating it was just 4,600 people each year.

The revelation, which comes as the Home Office commissioned a review into the economic impact of foreign students on the UK, has put May’s fragile post-election position back under the spotlight.

Read more: ONS admits: "No evidence that non-EU students overstay their visa"

Cobra beer founder and independent peer Lord Bilimoria said the government had “knowingly deceived” the country and called for an inquiry into both Number

10 and the Home Office. In a blistering rebuke, the peer suggested May and home secretary Amber Rudd should resign, as they were “not up to the job”.

“They have been utterly negligent. There absolutely should be an inquiry – I cannot understand how they are getting away with it,” he told City A.M.

The entrepreneur pointed to damage wrought on the education industry and wider economy because of the government’s “economically illiterate” approach.

That view was echoed by Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London, who said May had made “bad policy on the basis of numbers which she knew were not reliable.”

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The education sector and wider economy had suffered and both the government and May individually should be held to account, he said.

Portes joined a siren of calls for the removal of students from the government’s net migration target, which he described as “crazy” in an open economy such as the UK.

Kamal Rahman, head of immigration at law firm Mishcon de Reya, said it was “illogical” for the government to stick to its guns on this issue adding that overseas students were already looking to other countries, having been put off by the government “talking with forked tongues.”

Read more: Ruth Davidson tackles Theresa May over immigration target

Business groups have campaigned for some time against the inclusion of foreign students in the Tories’ migration target.

Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said yesterday: “The admission that so few students overstay their visa rubbishes the idea that they should be included in the net migration figures. We hope that this consultation will be the first step in correctly classifying international students as ‘temporary residents’, as they are in the US, Canada, and Australia.”

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said the “debacle” was caused by May’s time as home secretary being spent “erecting a wall of visa restrictions on an entirely false basis”.

Immigration minister Brandon Lewis said: “Our commitment to reducing net migration to sustainable levels does not detract from our determination to attract international students... Since 2010 we have clamped down on abuse, while increasing the number of genuine [international] students”.

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