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May considering student exit plans

Foreign students could face being sent back to their home countries after their courses finish under hardline plans reportedly being considered by Home Secretary Theresa May.

The move would mean non-European Union (EU) students would have to return home in order to apply for a work visa if they wanted to continue to live in the UK after they graduated.

The Sunday Times reported that Mrs May wants a future Conservative government to "move towards zero net student migration" by sending home those who come to Britain on student visas.

A source close to the Home Secretary told the newspaper: "Making sure immigrants leave Britain at the end of their visa is as important a part of running a fair and efficient immigration system as controlling who comes here in the first place.

"Theresa is pressing for the next Conservative manifesto to contain a policy that will make sure that anybody coming here on a student visa will have to leave the country in order to apply for a new visa of any kind.

"She wants to make the colleges and universities that sponsor foreign students responsible for ensuring their departure.

"She wants to be able to fine colleges and universities with low departure rates and deprive the worst of them of their right to sponsor foreign students."

Under current rules, most students switch easily to a work visa from within the UK rather than have to leave the country and then come back.

Mrs May has repeatedly clashed with Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable - whose department has responsibility for universities - about foreign students.

Mr Cable has warned about tough rhetoric on immigration putting off students from countries including India from attending UK institutions and the Liberal Democrats would be highly unlikely to support any further tightening of the rules.

A senior Lib Dem source said her plan made "zero economic sense" and could deprive the UK of highly-skilled graduates.

"Such a blunt instrument would not get our support," the source said.

"The idea that you have people from abroad studying in this country and they become engineers or scientists of huge practical value to the economy, and rather than have them stay here you immediately turf them out makes zero economic sense."

Mrs May's plan emerged following a week in which her allies have been caught up in an internal party feud.

The Tory hierarchy is said to have blocked attempts by allies of the Home Secretary to stand as MPs after they refused to canvass support for the Conservatives in the Rochester and Strood by-election last month.

Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson declined to take part, citing the code of conduct for special advisers, which states they would have to resign if they wanted to get involved.

The move to block their candidacy is seen as the latest power struggle amid claims Mrs May is gearing up for a leadership bid if David Cameron is ousted after the election.

The Mail on Sunday reported that Chancellor George Osborne, another potential successor to Mr Cameron, was instrumental in the move aimed at depriving Mrs May of allies in the Commons.

Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries told the newspaper: "The man pulling the strings is Osborne, not Cameron.

"Osborne is desperate to ensure he has enough MPs in place to vote him on to the shortlist of two, which is put before members to choose the next leader, should there be a contest in 2015.

"Those two are likely to be Boris Johnson and Theresa May."

She added: 'If Nick and Stephen become MPs that is two more votes for Theresa and two fewer for George.

"Theresa has had a lot to put up with. The more popular she is among party members, the nastier it becomes in Westminster."

Former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke, who had his own clashes with Mrs May while in Government, said: "It's quite entertainingly newsworthy but someone should stop all their entourages falling out with each other.

"I actually think the relations between the people themselves are very good, I actually think Theresa is one of the strongest ministers in the Government, I actually think any prime minister - and David is very sensible about this - accepts he wants some strong ministers at the top of his government.

"The entourages seem to be having a little spat between themselves."

But Mr Clarke, appearing on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show, warned against grasping for simple solutions to immigration.

He said: "It's very difficult to debate immigration, which is why I do agree that the major parties have tended slightly to avoid it, because it runs away, it becomes almost hysterical quite rapidly in the public debate.

"Our problem is illegal immigration - our problem is that from dangerous, poor parts of the world we have people coming in and it's very difficult to control them if they are coming in on lorries from Somalia or Syria or Afghanistan or whatever.

"Legal immigration is a feature of the modern world but everybody insists it must be controlled properly. "

He did not agree that immigration was " somehow the cause of our housing crisis or our health crisis", adding: "There are far more complicated things there that you have got to tackle.

"What we do have to ensure is that we do have immigration, because we have got multinational companies, because half a million of the immigrants here are running their own businesses and providing jobs, we don't want to throw out French hedge fund managers ... At the moment the politics of the country, because of anger, because of reduced living standards, because of the recession, are very susceptible to people telling them 'oh don't bother with all this complicated politics, it's foreigners, let's get all these foreigners to go home'.

"That is not a sensible immigration policy. Real immigration policy is very difficult, we have reduced immigration from outside the EU by about 50,000 but we have a long way to go, not least as Theresa has been trying to do, improving the efficiency and the effectiveness of the Home Office and the immigration service."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "Theresa May is flailing around with her immigration policy in chaos. Her net migration target is in tatters, illegal immigration and exploitation are getting worse, she's given citizenship to serious criminals and the only answer she can come up with is a few more restrictions on the overseas university students who bring billions of investment into Britain.

"More does need to be done to stop people overstaying illegally when their visas run out - whether they arrived on student visas, work visas or tourist visas.

"But the answer to that isn't to prevent highly skilled overseas graduates getting legal work visas to fill shortages in fields like science or medicine here.

"Theresa May should be cracking down on illegal working, bringing in proper exit checks, and recruiting 1,000 more borders staff - as Labour has called for - to make sure visas are enforced.

"And she should bring in stronger checks on student visitor visas for short-term courses which are more likely to be abused - something we have called for for three years.

"Theresa May's problem is that her net migration target treats all immigration as the same. As a result she is trying to reduce overseas university students who benefit the economy whilst ignoring the fact that illegal immigration is getting worse and serious criminals are being given British citizenship.

"Theresa May is good at ramping up the rhetoric on immigration but terrible at the sensible delivery of a system that benefits us all and enforces rules fairly.‪"

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