Boris Johnson has risked a new row with Downing Street over immigration data after refusing to support the Prime Minister’s long-standing position on overseas students.
The Foreign Secretary was repeatedly asked in an interview if he agreed with Theresa May that the number of overseas students should be counted in net migration data, but failed to back her.
The interview followed the revelation that ministers may have based their policies on data that vastly overestimated the number of foreign students staying in the UK after studies.
Data analysed by the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics found there was no evidence of a major problem with students overstaying their entitlement to remain in the UK.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Johnson was asked if he thought student numbers should be counted with net migration data – a position Ms May has strongly supported since her time at the Home Office.
After an initial sidestep, he added: “I am content with the success we are having at attracting international students and in ensuring by the way that those international students do not overstay their period here and doing the right thing.
“But international students are a great feature of our education economy and we need to welcome them.”
Asked again if he thought students should remain in the data, he said: “The Prime Minister rightly points out that that is the technical way that they are currently counted.”
Pressed a final time he said only: “That is the way that is done. But to get that key point, there is no cap on foreign students coming into this country.”
Mr Johnson is joined by other frontbench figures, including his brother the education minister Jo Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox in having raised concerns that the drive to force down net migration will inadvertently see students put off from coming to the UK, damaging trade and a lucrative sector of the economy.
Officials under Ms May at the Home Office and then in Downing Street have cracked down on education institutions an overseas learners, claimed to have exploited education visas to gain undue entry to the UK.
But data used to justify the crackdown, suggesting some 100,000 more students a year may have been staying in the UK than leaving, was yesterday shown to be fundamentally unreliable.
New ways of collecting information, including studying exit checks as people leave the country, suggest students who failed to leave within the legitimate time frame allowed by their visa was around 4,600 in 2016/17, casting a different light on the situation.
An article from the ONS on international students said that before exit checks were undertaken, the method for ascertaining student departures had flaws and was “not a robust statistic”.
The paper written by Iain Bell, deputy national statistician for the ONS, concluded: “There is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay.”
Mr Hammond found himself at odds with the Prime Minister after signalling he favoured a change from her chosen stance last year, weeks later Mr Johnson said he thought students should be removed in an interview.
In March Dr Fox then revealed “an on-going argument inside Government” over student numbers, and said he thought they brought great benefits to the country.
Under David Cameron’s administration, Ms May blocked attempts, including by George Osborne, to remove student numbers from net migration data, fearing the public would see it as an attempt to manipulate figures.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies