Rishi Sunak’s potential plan to clamp down on international students taking “low-quality” degrees could “send many universities over the edge”, particularly in poorer regions, the chairman of the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee said.
Professor Brian Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Most universities for most courses lose money on teaching British students and offset that loss by charging more for international students.
“If you close down the international route I’m not sure how the university continues to survive.”
He said London, Cambridge and Oxford would do well if overseas students were only allowed places at “elite” universities, asking: “But what about Newcastle, what about the North East, the North West, Scotland?”
The King’s College economics professor added: “If you’re interested in the levelling-up agenda, you might want to worry about harming universities around Britain.”
He pointed out it was not just an immigration policy, but also an education policy, as it could lead to a “massive increase” in British students’ fees to make up for the loss of foreign students’ payments.
SNP shadow home secretary Stuart McDonald said the move, if carried out, would “deal another hammer blow to Scotland's economic interests”.
"If Westminster imposes this ludicrous and entirely counterproductive policy, it will be doing so against Scotland's wishes and in the face of strong opposition from the Scottish Government,” he said.
"International students bring huge benefits to Scottish society, our education system and economy. Yet again, the losers from this Tory policy would be communities across the length and breadth of Scotland.”
A No. 10 spokesman declined to say what constituted a “low quality” degree when pressed to provide a Government definition.
Asked about concerns the potential policy would damage universities and the UK economy, the official said: “Of course we support our universities – they’re some of the very best in the world – and of course we will always act in the best interest of the UK.”
The Prime Minister is considering a crackdown on international students bringing dependants and restricting admissions to top universities, Downing Street said on Thursday after net migration to the UK climbed to a record half a million.
His official spokesman insisted Mr Sunak was “fully committed” to bringing overall immigration levels down and blamed “unprecedented and unique circumstances” for the record high.
The official said: “We’re considering all options to make sure the immigration system is delivering, and that does include looking at the issue of student dependants and low-quality degrees.”
This would be in line with proposals being explored by home secretary Suella Braverman, who has previously complained about foreign students “bringing in family members who can piggyback on to their student visa” and “propping up, frankly, substandard courses in inadequate institutions”.
People arriving on study visas accounted for the largest proportion of long-term immigration of non-EU nationals, at 277,000, or 39 per cent of the total, according to the Office for National Statistics.