Theresa May must back down over foreign student numbers

Catherine Neilan
Follow Catherine
University Students Celebrate Their Graduation
Foreign students pump billions into the UK economy (Source: Getty)

Once upon a time Theresa May aspired to be the next lady not for turning. In the aftermath of her disastrous election campaign, we learned that there are more than a few areas she is willing to row back on.

But the one constant, throughout her time as home secretary and up to the present day, has been her unwavering belief that tens of thousands of rogue students overstay their visas, and that they must therefore form part of her net migration target.

Business people and academics alike point to the damage this position is causing the sector, which is estimated to bring £25bn to the country each year.

Read more: DEBATE: ­Should students be included in the UK’s net migration figures?

Other politicians – including those in her own cabinet – have urged May to change tack. We’ve also made that argument on these pages numerous times in recent years. The public, which is presumably who she is hoping to curry favour with by taking this stance, have said they don’t put students in the same category as other immigrants. So why on earth does she insist on doing so?

It’s a question that no one really had an answer to yesterday, as we discovered the scale of just how misleading her position has been. It’s illogical, said one commentator. Deceitful, suggested another. Damaging, said a third. It is impossible to find a rational reason for pursuing this policy, no matter one’s position on the political spectrum.

Before the election, May had enough political capital to ignore the naysayers. Now in her weakened state, she can no longer strong-arm the rest of her cabinet into backing a position with which so few people agree. If she won’t listen to the university sector, or those in business, the Prime Minister must listen to ministers including her successor Amber Rudd and chancellor Philip Hammond, and concede ground.

Read more: Net migration target will haunt the Tories

Just as importantly, she must recognise that Britain needs to join the rest of the world in the 21st century and deploy proper exit checks, so we can know with greater accuracy who really is entering and leaving our country.

Having weathered the storm over her leadership since the election, it would be surprising if this issue were to topple her. But it could end up doing so if she continues along such an obstinate path.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.