The government needs to reclassify international students so that they don’t count towards net migration figures, a committee of MPs has urged.
The report from the Business Innovation and Skills Committee is the second in a week where MPs have attacked government policy on overseas students.
It comes as London Metropolitan University plans legal action over a ban on recruiting overseas students.
Immigration Minister Mark Harper rejected the suggested change.
The report, Overseas Students and Net Migration, follows Tuesday’s criticism from the Public Accounts Committee of attempts to tighten the student visa system as “poorly planned and ill thought-out” and creating “chaos”.
Both reports call on the government to record overseas students under a classification that does not count against the overall limit on net migration in order to allow the UK to continue to expand its share of the overseas student market.
The new report says that UK universities are rightly considered to be world leaders in higher education with an “enviable track record of attracting bright overseas students to study in the UK”.
Adrian Bailey MP, the chairman of the Business Innovation and Skills Committee, said that overseas students “contribute significantly to our economy as well as to our reputation as a world-class place to do business.
“The committee notes the government’s desire to reduce net migration – however, there is a clear conflict between this policy and the desire to attract more overseas students to the UK.
“The committee argues that, for domestic policy purposes, overseas students should be recorded under a separate classification and not be counted against the overall limit on net migration, along similar lines to the United States.
In a statement, the newly appointed immigration minister, Mark Harper, maintained the Home Office’s long-standing line that overseas students should remain part of net migration figures and that the United Nations definition of a migrant includes overseas students.
“We want the brightest and the best to come to the UK and there is no limit on the number of overseas students who can study at our world class institutions.
“The government does not consider it appropriate to deviate from the internationally agreed definition of a migrant, not least because students access services like health, transport and housing in the same way as someone on a work or family visa.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, welcomed the report: “We must be careful about the ways legitimate concerns at home about immigration could damage our international reputation as a welcoming place to study.
“Far from deflecting the public’s concerns about immigration, we believe that taking students out of the net migration equation would create a more open and focused public debate on immigration.
“It would also mean universities could work better with government in targeting any international students who should not be here.”
Shadow Home Office minister Nick Bryant said the government should focus on worsening illegal immigration situation rather than stopping the legitimate students.
He said: “Clearly there needs to be a continued crackdown on bogus colleges, as there has been under successive governments.
“We need to reverse the fall in deportation of those who break the rules, and the rise in people absconding through immigration controls.”
General secretary of the UCU academics union Sally Hunt said: “Finally we are hearing some sensible and measured voices in the debate over international students and immigration.
“It is particularly encouraging that the committee tasked with overseeing higher education recognises the widespread benefits overseas students bring to the UK and the huge damage that is being done by the alarming message that they are not welcome here.”
Liam Burns, NUS President said the cross-party case for changing international student visas policy is now overwhelming.
“The government must urgently follow the lead of Australia and the US and recognise that international students are not permanent migrants but rather come for the purpose of temporary study and should be treated accordingly.”
Last week London Metropolitan University’s licence to sponsor students from outside the European Union was revoked by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), leaving more than 2,000 students possibly facing deportation.
The university is now no longer able to teach or recruit overseas students but has announced plans for legal action against the ban.
The UKBA has pledged to “strongly contest” any legal action. It has said it has evidence that more than a quarter of a sample of students studying at the university did not have permission to stay in the country and there were “systemic failings” in the system.
BBC © 2012