Cabinet row breaks out over plans to restrict overseas students to elite universities

A Cabinet row has broken out over proposals to restrict overseas students to the UK’s elite universities as part of Downing Street efforts to lower immigration.

i understands the proposals to limit students to top universities have been met with derision from within the Department for Education, with concern mounting over the Home Office’s increasingly tough stance towards international students under Suella Braverman.

No 10 said Rishi Sunak is looking to curb the number of international students studying “low quality” courses in UK universities as the Government seeks to reduce record net migration figures.

The Times reported on Friday that the Government is considering more drastic action by banning overseas students entirely unless they have an offer from one of the country’s top universities.

Government advisers and university vice-chancellors have warned such a plan would decimate the sector, resulting in many institutions going bankrupt.

It comes as i revealed that ministers were also considering limiting visas for students’ dependants.

The Home Secretary identified student visas as a policy area to be scrutinised, having previously warned of overseas students “bringing in family members who can piggyback onto their student visa” and “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.

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Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said on Friday: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees.”

Proposals to limit international students from the UK’s universities have been condemned across Westminster and the higher education sector.

Professor Brian Bell, chair of the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee, warned clamping down on international students taking “low-quality” degrees could “send many universities over the edge,” particularly in poorer regions

“Most universities, for most courses, lose money on teaching British students, and offset that loss by charging more for international students,” Prof Bell told the BBC.

“If you close down the international route, I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”

He added that London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if overseas students were only allowed places at “elite” universities, asking: “But what about Newcastle, what about the north east, the north west, Scotland? If you’re interested in the levelling up agenda, you might want to worry about harming universities around Britain.”

Tory peer and former universities minister Jo Johnson delivered a withering assessment of the proposals, warning that any plans to limit international students to Russell Group universities would “gravely disadvantage” other universities deemed to be less prestigious: “If you had to design a policy to thwart our ambitions to become a science superpower – that was going to set back our ambitions to level up the country – this is basically it.”

A former Tory education minister told i: “It’s bizarre. The job of politicians is to sell the benefits of our internationally renowned education system. The number of international students entering the UK was always something that seen as a major positive for the Government.”

i understands the Home Office does not have any immediate plans to change student visas but will be looking at the issue in the future. The department’s immediate priority is dealing with the Channel small boats crisis.

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