The head of a committee that advises ministers on migration issues has said his panel supports curbing the amount of time overseas university students can stay in Britain.
Professor Brian Bell, chairman of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), told The Sunday Telegraph that his independent body thought it “unnecessary” for foreign students to be permitted to work in Britain for two years after completing their masters degree.
It comes as ministers brace themselves for fresh net migration statistics next week which are expected to show that at least 700,000 people — a record high — came to the UK last year.
That is despite the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promising that “overall numbers will come down” from the level of 226,000, as they were that year.
A significant factor behind the swell in numbers in recent years has been an increase in foreign students and their dependents arriving, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
ONS data shows that people arriving on study visas accounted for the largest proportion (39%) of long-term immigration of non-EU nationals in the year to June 2022, at 277,000 people.
That was up from 143,000 in the previous 12 months.
Prof Bell, a professor of economics at King’s Business School at King’s College London, told the newspaper that the graduate visa had allowed foreign students “pretty much unrestricted rights to work” for two years after studying for a one-year masters.
A graduate visa allows masters students to bring spouses and children to the country with them, with the family permitted to stay on with them for 24 months after their course is over.
Prof Bell told The Sunday Telegraph the MAC had found students who stayed after graduating were often in low-skilled and low-earning jobs.
“An offer to do anything you want for two years seems unnecessary to us, so personally I’ve never been massively in favour of the graduate route,” he told the newspaper.
It follows reports that ministers are planning to stop family members joining overseas masters students at UK universities as part of efforts to reduce legal migration figures.
The plan, first reported by the Financial Times earlier this month, is said to involve curbing the number of dependents who come to the UK with overseas masters students, often from India and Nigeria.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been publicly pushing for lower immigration, saying more Britons should be trained to be lorry drivers and fruit pickers to plug demand.
In a speech to the National Conservatism conference last week, Mrs Braverman said Britain “must not lose sight of the importance of controlling legal migration”, as well as clamping down on unlawful entries.
But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been taking a more pragmatic approach with the economy in mind, having made clear to farmers that more seasonal fruit pickers will be allowed into the UK if they are needed.
During his trip to Japan for the G7 leaders’ meeting, Mr Sunak conceded that he thinks immigration into the UK is “too high” but would not spell out what he believes is an acceptable level.
He told Sky News he was “committed to bringing down the levels of migration that I inherited”.
A Home Office spokeswoman, asked about Prof Bell’s comments, said: “The public rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing overall net migration, while ensuring we have the skills our economy and public services needs.
“We keep all our immigration policies under constant review to continue to strike a balance between welcoming people who contribute to the UK’s academic institutions and reducing overall net migration over time.”