Boarding schools have urged the government to remove overseas pupils from net immigration figures.
In a letter to Immigration Minister Mark Harper, the Boarding Schools Association (BSA) said including these pupils risked driving them away.
The BSA said overseas students brought in £510m in fees alone last year.
John Newton, head of Taunton School, said the students were “exactly what government would like international students to be – temporary migrants”.
In the letter, Mr Newton, a member of the BSA’s national executive committee, urged the minister “to consider, most seriously and urgently, removing from the student immigration figures those international students coming to attend our member schools”.
“To discourage them in any way, to send the message that they are dangerous and not wanted, despite their youth, is to send them straight to other markets for education in Australia and in the United States, to damage valuable schools for whom international students are commercially vital, and to do serious harm to the British economy when it is already fragile,” he said.
The government has already said it wants to develop a new system of student migration in and out of the UK – but the debate has so far focused on university or college students.
Two MPs’ reports recently urged the government to reclassify international students so they would not count towards net migration figures and earlier this month London Metropolitan University began legal proceedings to challenge a ban by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) on its recruitment of overseas students.
The agency said the university was not making proper checks on the students. The move was part of a crack-down on alleged abuse of the student visa system and London Met was the first university to lose its right to sponsor students from outside of the European Union for their visas.
The Boarding Schools Association letter assures the minister: “Ours is a safe sector as compliant as UKBA could wish, and our incoming students are as safe a category of student as you could devise… no students are likely to be as safe as those attending the reputable boarding schools in our membership.
“Parents wanting their children back, in good health and in good order and with excellent examination results, is the reason these school pupils should be removed from the student numbers.”
A spokesman for UKBA responded: “There is no limit on the number of overseas students who can study at our world class institutions and they continue to attract the best and the brightest. Altering the internationally agreed definition of a migrant would not change that and could in fact undermine public confidence in our statistics.”
The BSA represents 462 boarding schools, with about 73,000 pupils in both state and private sectors.