Government plans to block foreign students from bringing their families into the country risk damaging UK soft power, Government officials have warned.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his home secretary, Suella Braverman, are concerned about the number of dependants that have entered the UK by joining international students.
In a bid to arrest the near eight-fold rise in family members entering the country on student visas, the Home Office is planning to allow only foreign students taking “high value” courses to bring their spouses and children with them.
The proposal has prompted warnings from across Whitehall that it poses a risk to the UK’s ability to maintain diplomatic links and influence in parts of the world where more formal cooperation is not in place.
i understands that officials have highlighted the dangers of limiting the UK’s soft power by attempting to prevent future diplomats and business leaders in Africa, Asia and the Middle East from receiving higher education in British universities.
It comes after i revealed that Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was pushing back against Ms Braverman’s attempts to make it less attractive for overseas students to study in the UK in a bid to reduce overall immigration.
A source close to her said last month that the Cabinet minister was eager to push the “benefits foreign students bring to the UK, both financially and in terms of the UK’s reputation abroad”.
But despite the resistance, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is on board with the proposal despite the economic impact it may have, with Treasury sources insisting that the number of dependants arriving in the UK was “through the roof”.
Higher education experts have warned the plan will be detrimental to the sector, with many institutions likely to fail if foreign student visas are drastically cut, while losing students to countries with more welcoming policies, such as Canada, Australia and the US.
Nick Hillman, director of think tank the Higher Education Policy Institute, told i: “It’s crazy. Undergraduates already can’t bring dependants. And postgraduates who can have to prove they will be self-reliant financially.”
He added: “On the one hand, the Government tells universities to diversify away from China. So they recruit from India or Nigeria then get slated for recruiting students who bring dependants. These people won’t cease being international students – they’ll just become international students in another country, meaning no benefit to the UK.”