The head of a leading Westcountry university has warned that a Government clampdown on immigration could see the region losing out on millions of pounds from foreign students.
Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, says growth in numbers of international students – and their valuable income – was being jeopardised because the Government would not exempt students from tough new immigration targets.
Official figures just released reveal last year's net migration figure – the number of people moving to the UK minus the number that left – to be 216,000. The Government wants to reduce this to 100,000.
But Sir Steve warned that this could scupper potential in the region to attract more international students, each paying some £10,000 a year in fees alone, and ploughing in the same amount again through their living expenses.
It comes after the UK Border Agency (UKBA) last week stripped the London Metropolitan University of its ability to host foreign students from outside the EU after an investigation found "serious systemic failure" in its monitoring regime.
International students coming to the University of Exeter's three campuses, including one at Falmouth in Cornwall, are worth more than £105 million to the wider economy every year, according to research commissioned by the University of Exeter.
"International students are the country's 7th largest export industry; they are worth just over eight billion pounds a year to the UK," Sir Steve said.
"All the predictions are for massive increases in the number of students who want to come to the UK, and the South West could certainly take more.
"If we were producing cars and widgets the Government would be backing us like hell as an export industry, but because it is immigration, which is such a toxic subject, they won't support it."
He said that while his own institution only planned a modest increase of about ten per cent – 300-400 – in the number of international students it takes each year, this still represented a hefty boost to Exeter's economy, on a par with the opening of the new John Lewis store.
"Everyone has been going on about the John Lewis effect, which is of course wonderful, but John Lewis will contribute ten million pounds a year to the city. We are putting in ten times that a year through our international students.
"We have been arguing that students should be taken out of the UK immigration figures for a long time.
"We think there is massive growth potential for tens of thousands more students to come to the UK. We don't want to do what the US and Australia did in the early 2000s, which was to choke off interest so the students went elsewhere. This sends the message that Britain is not open for business to international students."
His comments come after MP Margaret Hodge, chairman of the Commons' Public Affairs Committee, called for international students to be considered separately from other immigrants. Mrs Hodge, reporting on the current student immigration points-based system, said it was open to abuse by migrants who had no intention of studying, and unnecessarily complicated for genuine students.