Immigration reforms have a ‘preventing probability’ of slashing web migration

Immigration reforms introduced by the Government have a ‘fighting chance’ of slashing net migration to as low as 150,000, a leading expert said today.

In what would be a major pre-election boost for PM Rishi Sunak, recent changes to the rule for overseas students and foreign workers could trigger an ‘enormous’ drop in numbers coming to Britain.

The chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), Professor Brian Bell, said ministers may have underestimated the huge effect of a range of changes which came into force earlier this year.

It could mean net migration – the difference between the number of migrants coming to live in Britain and those emigrating – could soon fall to between 150,000 and 200,000 a year, after hitting a record 745,000 in 2022, Prof Bell said.

Plummeting net migration combined with a successful launch of the Rwanda asylum scheme would be a crucial shot in the arm to the Conservative party in the run-up to the next general election.

Net migration into the UK, based on data from the Office of National Statistics

Net migration into the UK, based on data from the Office of National Statistics  

‘I think it is entirely possible that there is a really big reduction in international student numbers – and that is going to have an enormous effect on net migration overall,’ Prof Bell said.

‘In September [the start of the academic year] we could suddenly see a massive drop.’

Postgraduate students who have already paid a deposit for courses this autumn appear to be down by 50 to 60 per cent year-on-year at some institutions, he said.

‘That will be a much bigger fall than the Government had expected,’ Prof Bell went on.

‘If that bears out when we get to September and see the enrolment numbers I think it probably supports a view that the Government will overachieve on that objective of reducing net migration on the student side.

‘And I think they have a fighting chance, therefore, of getting to where they wanted to be in terms of no increase relative to 2019 in the manifesto.

‘Probably around 150,000-200,000 is perhaps where you’d get to.’

The Conservative manifesto in 2019 committed to making sure ‘overall numbers come down’ at a time when net migration stood at 226,000 a year.

Prof Bell said that further immigration restrictions would be required to get net migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’, as first pledged by the Conservatives in 2010.

Recent reforms by Home Secretary James Cleverly have included preventing foreign care workers and most postgraduate students bringing family members with them to the UK, and raising the salary threshold for skilled worker visas for which some students later apply.

A report published by the MAC today said the measures are likely to have a ‘very large’ impact on the number of foreign students staying to work in Britain.

Rishi Sunak pictured today at a food summit in Downing Street

Rishi Sunak pictured today at a food summit in Downing Street

The MAC, a panel of independent experts which advises ministers, concluded there is no need to shake up the ‘graduate visa’ route which allows students to work here for up to two years after finishing their course.

It said there was ‘no evidence of widespread abuse’ of the graduate visa.

But it warned that foreign students may be being ‘exploited’ and ‘misled’ by agencies which recruit for courses at British universities, and called for tougher regulation.

Further restrictions on foreign students would lead to universities – which rely on higher tuition fees paid by international students – facing a budget meltdown, the report said.

The higher education sector would suffer ‘substantial financial difficulty’ which could lead to job losses and even force some institutions to close down.

‘The recent immigration policy changes will directly impact the demand for the graduate route, and thereafter progression onto longer term work routes,’ the study said.

‘The … impacts of these policy changes alone could be very large.

‘For the cohort of international students who finished in 2023, we might have expected around 70,000 to have ultimately progressed onto work routes.

‘Under the policy changes already introduced, this could reduce to around 26,000.’

It said there was ‘concern about potential exploitation of both student and graduate visa holders due to poor practices by certain agents who recruit students onto courses and may be mis-selling UK higher education’.

The report added that one ‘student representative’ told the MAC that there were ‘outright lies’ being told by ‘third-party educational agents’ who are ‘mis-selling the UK as an immigration destination as opposed to an education destination’.

The MAC’s report, which was commissioned by Mr Cleverly in March, said there should be a ‘mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and sub-agents’.

A group of migrants are brought ashore at Dover after being intercepted by Border Force yesterday

A group of migrants are brought ashore at Dover after being intercepted by Border Force yesterday 

Universities should be required to publish their spend on recruitment agents and the number of international students recruited in that way, it added.

It also recommended a new requirement for universities to tell the Home Office what class of degree applicants have achieved in their undergraduate course.

Last year 114,000 graduate route visas were granted for main applicants with a further 30,000 for dependants.

Just four nationalities – Indian, Nigerian, Chinese and Pakistani – account for 70 per cent of the total.

Last November the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said net migration was 745,000 in 2022, and fell to 672,000 in the partly-overlapping 12 months to June 2023.

A new figure for the whole of 2023 is due to be published by the ONS next week.

A Government spokesman said: ‘We are considering the review’s findings very closely and we will respond fully in due course.’