Braverman's curbs on foreign students watered down over tuition fee fears

Suella Braverman has argued for more stringent restrictions on foreign students - Neil Hall/Shutterstock
Suella Braverman has argued for more stringent restrictions on foreign students - Neil Hall/Shutterstock

Suella Braverman’s plans to cut the number of foreign students in the UK were watered down amid fears they would increase tuition fees for British students, The Telegraph can reveal.

The Department for Education (DfE) blocked the Home Secretary’s desire for radical cuts by arguing that international students “subsidise” home fees.

It comes as the latest published figures show that foreign student fees made up 21 per cent of UK universities’ overall income in 2021-22.

New restrictions on family

Last month, the Home Office announced new restrictions on the ability of foreign students to bring family members to the UK in a bid to reduce annual net migration, which has now hit 606,000.

From next year, only students on postgraduate research courses will be able to bring dependants.

However, Mrs Braverman had argued for more stringent restrictions on foreign students.

At last October’s Conservative Party conference, she said there were “too many students coming into this country who are propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions.”

And, according to a note from a Whitehall meeting the same month, the Home Secretary was said to have argued that because the Government had hit a target early to get 600,000 foreign students coming to the UK annually, it was now “time to review and constrain numbers.”

Pushing for a reduction

Mrs Braverman is understood to have pushed for a reduction in the amount of time students can remain in the country after their courses, while the Government had also previously considered restricting international recruitment to all but elite universities.

However, the DfE headed off the proposals by privately warning that a collapse in foreign student numbers would require more taxpayers’ money going to universities or higher tuition fees for British students.

Since 2017, tuition fees for students studying in England have been frozen at £9,250, meaning their value has been considerably eroded by inflation.

A DfE source said: “Where do you think the money comes to subsidise these tuition fees? It’s from the international students.”

They added that the department had “reached a good compromise” with the Home Office and did not expect further restrictions.

Opposed to cutting numbers

Universities have made a similar argument to oppose cutting foreign student numbers.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, which represents British higher education institutions on the world stage, last month said that foreign students were plugging funding gaps.

In a foreword to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, he said they were “enabling universities to offer a much wider range of courses than would otherwise be viable, and, increasingly, cross-subsidising the teaching of home undergraduate students, which – thanks to recent high inflation levels – now makes a loss even in England”.

A senior figure in the university sector, who asked not to be named, told The Telegraph that the announcement on dependants “could have been a lot, lot worse”.

“It’s the only thing [the Government] could get away with because the impact of further international reduction is catastrophic for the sector.”

They said that foreign student fees were “central to the funding arrangements of every university in the country”.

“If we stopped international students tomorrow, universities are going to go under.”

Mixed messages

The source added that the higher education sector had received mixed messages from the Government in recent years on the issue of foreign students.

“More or less explicitly, the sector was told in the middle of the last decade, ‘you’re not getting any more for domestic students, make your money out of international students’,” they said.

“The Government basically told our universities to become international service traders, and then when they did that really successfully [the Government] got really p----d off about it.”

A Home Office source said that the “sheer numbers” of foreign students had put “pressure on housing and public services”.

“The longer this continues the more hooked universities will be on this,” they said.

“It’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to come off this drug because they are genuinely hooked on it. If they then invest in faculty buildings… it’s all dependent on this sustained income. It’s no wonder that they lobby saying they will go bust.”

However, a report from the Migration Advisory Committee in 2018 found that because foreign students are generally “young with few dependants they make few demands on public services such as health”.

A government spokesman said: “We have seen growth in the use of a range of visa routes, including an unprecedented rise in the number of dependants arriving with students. This has understandably contributed to higher levels of net migration.

“We have carried out the toughest ever action by government to reduce migration, including removing the right for most international students to bring family members, while continuing to benefit from the skills and resources our economy needs.”

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