Rishi Sunak | Photo: AFP
London: The UK government announced new visa limits affecting international students, with the ruling Conservatives locked in a war of words over soaring immigration.
Under the new measures only students on postgraduate courses designated as research programmes -- typically lasting longer than two years -- will be able to bring dependants to the UK while they study.
Since Brexit, Britain has ended free movement of people from the European Union, but net migration is set to hit record highs this year.
Much of that has been driven by bespoke visa schemes for people fleeing Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. But student numbers have also surged, notably from India and Nigeria.
That has stoked political controversy, and cabinet infighting over the issue spilled into the open last week as right-wing Home Secretary Suella Braverman urged her own government to get tougher.
Ranged against her are the finance and education ministers, who value the skills brought in by foreign workers and the high overseas fees paid by students to UK universities.
In a statement to parliament, Braverman said the proposals struck the "right balance" and would likely see net migration "fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term".
Some 136,000 visas were issued to the dependants of international students last year -- up eight-fold from 16,000 in 2019, she said.
In future, overseas students will be prevented from switching "out of the student route into work routes" before they have finished their courses.
But the government said it was not planning any change to foreign students being able to stay in Britain for two years on the same visa, after their course, provided they have found employment.
There will also be "improved and more enforcement activity" and a clampdown on "unscrupulous agents" using education as a cover for immigration, according to Braverman's statement.
The minister -- a Brexit hardliner whose harsh rhetoric on immigration has proved divisive -- said overseas students played an important part in supporting the UK economy.
But she said that should not come at the cost of the government's intention "to lower overall migration and ensure that migration to the UK is highly skilled and therefore provides the most benefit."
Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, which represents British universities abroad, cast doubt on whether the new measures would dent the migration numbers.
Most international students do not come with dependants, he said, "so the vast majority of students will be unaffected by this change."
"There will of course be some impact, otherwise the government would not be introducing the change," he added, urging consultation with the universities sector "to mitigate that impact".
After a drop during the worst of the Covid pandemic, official figures published last November estimated net migration to June 2022 at just over 500,000.
New figures due out this week are expected to be even higher -- and Braverman was accused last week of courting the Conservatives' right wing in a bid eventually to supplant Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Uncontrolled immigration from the EU was one of the main battlegrounds of the Brexit referendum in 2016, which saw the UK leave the bloc.
Since 2018, the country has also seen thousands of people successfully cross the English Channel in small boats to claim asylum.
The government agreed a deal last year to relocate failed asylum seekers to Rwanda. But the scheme has been mired in legal battles and is yet to get underway.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union representing academics, attacked the new rules on students.
"This is another deeply shameful moment for a government hell-bent on attacking migrants and undermining our universities," she said.