Ministers are drawing up plans to stop family members from joining overseas master’s students at British universities, as Rishi Sunak braces himself for figures showing record net migration to the UK.
The Conservatives promised at the 2019 general election that “overall numbers will come down” but official data due this month is expected to instead show that in 2022 net migration hit record levels.
“Numbers will be high,” admitted one government insider, referring to the planned release of data by the Office for National Statistics on May 25.
Between June 2021 and June 2022, net migration to the UK hit a record 504,000, according to ONS data, but the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank has estimated the total for last year could top 700,000. Nearly all of the increase is accounted for by non-EU migration.
Experts said “unusually high” levels of net migration will continue until after the next election, expected in 2024 — driven by upheavals in Ukraine and Hong Kong, NHS staff shortages and growing numbers of international students — before falling in the following few years.
The surge in legal net migration is boosting the size of Britain’s workforce but the issue is politically problematic for the prime minister. Sunak is grappling with the separate and more contentious issue of illegal migration by people in small boats coming across the English Channel.
The Conservatives are trailing the opposition Labour party by about 15 percentage points in opinion polls and last week were hammered in local elections in England. Immigration has become one of the most explosive political issues.
Ministers are now finalising plans to tackle one recent boom area for legal migration: the number of dependants who come to Britain with overseas masters students, often from India and Nigeria.
Students have been one of the main drivers of the post-coronavirus pandemic surge in migration, with almost 500,000 study visas issued by the UK authorities in 2022 — a rise of 81 per cent compared with 2019.
Students, especially those coming from Nigeria and India, have become more likely to bring family with them, with 135,788 visas granted to dependants in 2022, up from 16,047 in 2019.
The Department for Education, the Home Office and the Treasury are finalising a plan that would stop dependants from travelling with master’s students on one-year courses, according to several officials close to the discussions.
One said: “Many of these courses only last for nine months. We don’t think this will have a big effect on our ability to attract global talent.”
One minister confirmed the focus was on the dependants of master’s students, saying: “It’s clear we have to do something. We’re a long way from David Cameron’s promise to reduce annual net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’.”
The Treasury, which normally favours higher migration, has accepted the political need to restrict the number of dependants of overseas students, while Gillian Keegan, education secretary, has also agreed to the plan.
But government insiders said Keegan was insisting that master’s students should be able to bring family members to the UK if they stay to work in the country after completing their studies.
“International education is popular,” Keegan said in a speech this week. “It makes us all richer. We all benefit as we build partnerships and lasting bonds. That’s something we value hugely.”
Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford university, said that while net migration was unusually high, it would “fall over the next few years, all else being equal”, as people who recently came to the UK leave again, particularly if they are overseas students.
“In other words, we cannot assume that currently high levels of net migration represent a ‘new normal’. It wouldn’t be sensible to take major policy decisions based on the assumption that what we see now will continue forever.”
The Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK fiscal watchdog, said in March it expected net migration flows to settle at about 245,000 each year.
Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, the sector’s representative body, said universities were focusing on protecting the graduate visa route, which allows students the right to work after they complete their studies.
They would also advocate for the importance of overseas students for UK higher education and the wider economy, she added.
The Home Office said: “The public rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing net migration over time, while ensuring we have the skills our economy and public services needs.”
Alp Mehmet, chair of Migration Watch UK, said ministers were right to be worried by rising migration.
“The net migration number for the whole of 2022 will be much higher than the record 500,000 for the year to June 2022. This is over 10 times the number who crossed the Channel last year.”