International students should be removed from the Prime Minister's key immigration target to support economic growth, a group of influential MPs and peers said today.
In an open letter, the chairs of five parliamentary committees have urged David Cameron to exclude overseas students from his Government's attempts to slash net migration to "tens of thousands" by the next election.
The letter argued that encouraging international students to choose the UK will "support economic growth in the immediate and longer term, supporting jobs in university towns and increasing export earnings".
The group includes chair of the business, innovation and skills select committee, Labour MP Adrian Bailey and home affairs select committee chair Labour MP Keith Vaz.
The Government is clamping down on bogus foreign students through initiatives such as interviews with applicants from high-risk countries and barring more than 500 colleges from taking non-EU students.
Universities have condemned the crackdown, claiming it had driven large numbers of genuine overseas applicants to competitor countries.
But figures released yesterday from admission body Ucas revealed the number of applicants to UK universities from outside the EU rose 9.6% between September 2012 and January this year to 45,320 applications.
Net migration fell to 183,000 in the year to March, with 536,000 coming to the UK in the period. Of these, 213,000 were students.
The letter was also signed by European sub-committee on home affairs chair crossbench peer Lord Hannay of Chiswick, public accounts select committee chair, Labour MP Margaret Hodge and science and technology committee chair, crossbench peer Professor Lord Krebs.
The group welcomed a move to extend the length of time available for PhD and MBA students to find work in the UK after they have completed their studies.
But the letter added: "However, we believe this aspiration should be backed by further action to encourage international university students to choose to study in the UK."
It went on: "International students who study in the UK also build relationships which last over time, laying the foundations for future business opportunities in emerging economies and supporting our foreign policy objectives."
The letter has been sent to the Prime Minister ahead of an expected visit to India, where applications to UK universities have been particularly badly affected.
Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge earlier this month said repeated statements by ministers to be tougher on immigration had made international students feel unwelcome.
She said universities are reporting a significant drop in the number of students applying from overseas, particularly from India, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia.