May's graduate plan 'mean-spirited'
Theresa May's reported plan to send foreign students back to their home countries after graduation has been denounced as "mean-spirited" by a Conservative former universities minister, who said it would do "real damage" to Britain's higher education sector.
David Willetts, who left the Government in July's reshuffle, said the proposals risked deterring foreign students from countries such as India or China coming to learn in the UK, at a time when the country should be trying to increase its share of the lucrative global market for higher-level education.
Instead of preventing foreign graduates working in the UK, the Government should be making it easier for them to take up jobs in university cities such as Manchester or Newcastle by setting lower minimum pay-rates for post-study work outside London, he said.
A source close to the Home Secretary told the Sunday Times that Mrs May was pressing for the next Conservative manifesto to include a policy requiring any non-EU student to leave the country after graduation and apply for a new visa if they wish to return to the UK.
Under the plans, colleges and universities could be fined or stripped of their right to sponsor foreign students if they fail to ensure their departure.
Present rules allow non-EU students to stay on to work for up to two years after leaving university, but only in a graduate-level job with a licensed sponsor and a minimum salary of £20,300.
Writing in The Times, Mr Willetts said that almost 500,000 of the four million-plus students who study abroad each year come to Britain.
"This is an export market with massive opportunities for us," said the former universities minister.
"There is a global trend for more students to study abroad. We should aim to increase our share of this growing market.
"But if we implement the latest idea from the Home Office for new restrictions on overseas students, we would not only miss this golden opportunity, we would be acting in a mean-spirited and inward-looking way."
He warned: "A further tightening of post-study work, as floated by the Home Office at the weekend, would do real damage to our universities and drive away overseas students."
Mr Willetts acknowledged that voters were concerned about immigration levels.
But he said: "Voters are unhappy about asylum seekers getting to the top of the housing list or pregnant women flying to Heathrow to give birth on the NHS. But I have never had a complaint about Chinese students studying physics. That is not the problem."