Theresa May has opened up the prospect of students being excluded from the infamous Tory target of getting net immigration to the UK down below 100,000 a year.
Speaking on her trip to China, the Prime Minister said that her crackdown on bogus English colleges had largely taken the “abuse out of the system” and students now “wash through the numbers”.
She insisted that she still believed it was appropriate to include those in higher education in the statistics, but appeared to pave the way for a possible Commons defeat on the issue.
Her remarks come ahead of a crunch vote when the long-awaited Immigration Bill is published in coming weeks and rebel Tory MPs will join the Opposition to remove students from the migration figures.
Cabinet colleagues like Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond are all believed to privately want the current measure to be axed, fearing it deters tens of thousands of foreign nationals from wanting to study at UK universities.
Critics have long complained that including students in the migration statistics has undermined May’s claim to want ‘the brightest and the best’ to come Britain to study or work.
And with Brexit looming next year, the issue has united both Leavers and Remainers in her frontbench team.
Asked if keeping students in the statistics was still an ‘article of faith’ for her, initially May replied by repeating her long-held argument that students were included in the numbers because they met an international definition of a migrant.
“It was important to look at what was happening with students in the UK when I was Home Secretary,” she said.
“There was a lot of abuse taking place in colleges - something like 900 colleges can no longer bring in overseas students because all too often they were being brought in to work rather than for education.”
But May then added: “Once you see that abuse out of the system, students coming in for the period of their education and then leaving actually wash through the numbers - they don’t have a long term impact on the numbers.”
It is unlikely that the Prime Minister will order a change in policy before the Immigration Bill, but her hint suggests that if the Government is defeated in the Commons, or Lords, it will relent and exclude students from the controversial target.
The pledge to get net migration down to ‘tens of thousands’ was first made in the 2010 Conservative manifesto, but has never been met.
It was dreamed up by David Cameron but May as Home Secretary was tasked with delivering on the pledge, despite criticism from their Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, that it was unworkable and counter-productive.