“When we leave the European Union, we will have the opportunity to make sure we have control of our borders – leaving the EU means we won’t have free movement as it has been in the past,” she told journalists at a campaign event in London.
A reduction in the number of students coming from the Continent might be key to the government’s mission, given that the prime minister continues to ignore calls from universities and Conservative colleagues to remove students from the target.
Data released by the Office for National Statistics earlier this year revealed that a drop of 41,000 in the number of international students coming to the UK in the year ended September 2016 was the major factor accounting for net migration’s falling to its lowest level since 2014, although the majority of this decline occurred among non-EU students.
chief executive of Bright Blue, a think tank and pressure group for liberal conservatism, said that there was a “siege mentality” among senior government figures over the inclusion of students in the target and that Ms May wanted to “maintain the image of being someone who doesn’t back down easily and stands up to vested interests”.
He said that introducing a cap on the number of student visas was one possible route the government might take, even though it has repeatedly insisted that there is no limit on the number of genuine overseas students who can come to the UK.
“That could be something that they look into because obviously to achieve the tens of thousands target, you do need to clamp down on every part of the immigration system,” he said.
Another potential method of deterring students could be to reduce the four-month period that they are allowed to remain in the UK after completing their studies, he said.
He predicted that the government’s main strategy would be to demand that universities monitor much more closely “the genuineness of people who have sponsored visas with that institution”. Universities are currently at risk of losing their licence to recruit overseas students if 10 per cent of their prospective overseas intake are refused visas.
But Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University and a member of Universities UK’s International Policy Network, said that the argument to remove students from the migration target was “not really worth pursuing”, suggesting that the government would focus on other sectors in its battle to reduce immigration.
“It’s a bit of a red herring because what will transpire is that students don’t actually significantly contribute to [net migration], the numbers of students coming here from the EU will go down [post-Brexit] and the government will have other levers to affect migration once we’ve left the EU,” he said.