Migration to Britain fell by almost a quarter during the past year as new rules on student visas took effect, figures released today showed.
But the Government was warned tonight that its tough stance was deterring genuine students and damaging the economy.
The net migration figure – those people arriving minus those leaving – dropped to 183,000 in the year to March, compared with 242,000 for the 12 months to March 2011, the largest fall for four years.
The figures will renew the Government’s hopes it can fulfil David Cameron’s promise to reduce to “tens of thousands” the overall number of people settling in the UK by the next general election in 2015. According to the Office for National Statistics, 536,000 people came to the UK during the year, while 353,000 left.
Some 213,000 foreign students arrived, a drop of eight per cent on a peak of 232,000 in the year to March 2011. More recent figures suggest student numbers have fallen by close to 30 per cent in the year to the end of September.
The other main factor in the fall in net migration was a rise in the numbers of people moving abroad to work.
Mr Cameron responded to the numbers by tweeting: “Today’s figures show we are reducing net migration. Effective immigration helps us compete in the global race.”
Ministers, who have always argued that new visa rules would take time to have an impact on the migration totals, were delighted at today’s announcement.
But the figures show the Government still has a long way to go to meet Mr Cameron’s promise.
Simon Walker, the director-general of the Institute of Directors, said: “The current approach to migration risked deterring international students, damaging our higher education sector and giving the impression that Britain is not open to talent from across the world. We support the Government’s desire to crack down on the minority of bogus students, but legitimate students are also being put off.”
Sarah Mulley, the associate director of the Institute of Public Policy Research think-tank, said: “Steps to reduce abuse of the student visa system are welcome, but if the Government’s net migration target is to be met, they also need there to be a dramatic fall in the numbers of genuine foreign students. This will come at a significant economic cost.”
There were marked drops in the numbers of students from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but an increase in the number from China.
In terms of emigration, 17,000 people more left the UK this year than in 2011, with those leaving with a definite job rising to 127,000, compared with 108,000 the previous year.
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