Justine Greening, the former Conservative education secretary, has attacked Rishi Sunak’s proposals to limit the number of international students at British universities, arguing that the move could have a “severe negative impact” on the country.

In a letter co-signed by 12 university vice-chancellors, Greening urged the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, to make the case against new restrictions on students said to be supported by Sunak in the wake of record levels of inward migration.

“Reducing the number of international students could have a severe negative impact on Britain’s economy, productivity, and our world-leading universities,” Greening said in the letter.

“The obvious cultural contribution and enrichment of UK students’ learning experience is clear, as is the knowledge exchange and research contribution that international students bring to our renowned higher education sector.”

Last month, No 10 said Sunak was looking at new restrictions on international students as a way of reducing immigration, including limits on the range of universities to which they could apply, and on their ability to bring along family members.

The prime minister’s spokesperson said: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees.”

Greening, who stood down as an MP at the last election, said it was vital that ministers “confirm these plans are off the table as soon as possible”, adding: “The reality is that overseas students pay significantly higher fees, which crucially cross-subsidises the education investment for domestic students.”

The letter warns that restricting international applicants to a small pool of selective universities would undermine social mobility and “risks widening the levelling-up gap in the higher education sector” by taking resources out of areas that need it most.

“It would be counterproductive from an economic growth perspective to restrict international students from studying and building links in the very areas and regions where levelling up is most needed and where businesses particularly need that higher-skilled workforce to grow,” the group said.

The 12 vice-chancellors who signed the letter include the leaders of Southampton and Loughborough universities, as well as Steve West, the vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and president of the Universities UK group.

The group recommends that Keegan support reforming the UK’s migration statistics so that international students are reported separately from other immigrants.

“With international students included in net migration numbers, the risk is that it gives a distorted picture of the underlying wider reality on overall longer-term migration,” the letter states.


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