May’s scaremongering deters foreign students, says Melvyn Bragg | UK news

The broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg has attacked Theresa May’s “mule-headed and mendacious” policy of counting foreign students in the government’s immigration statistics, claiming international students are now “rejecting us in droves”.

The Labour peer, who recently retired after 17 years as chancellor of Leeds University, said: “Not only Indian but Chinese students now feel unwelcome here.”

In a letter to the Guardian, Lord Bragg, 77, concludes he can only assume May wants to keep referring to “these 140,000-plus students as immigrants because it suits some disgraceful scaremongering tactic”.

There is a growing clamour for May to exclude foreign students from the target after official figures last week revealed that fewer than 5,000 a year stay on after their visa expires. The data from the Office of National Statistics was based on recently created exit checks at Britain’s borders.

The checks showed just 4,600 students overstayed their visa last year, a tiny proportion of the estimate previously given, which was close to 100,000. The new figures led to calls from both Conservative and opposition politicians to end the focus on overseas students.

Bragg writes that he consistently challenged the policy while chancellor at Leeds, and was “consistently fobbed off with arrogant or feeble responses”.

He says he cannot credit “that the government has got away with this mule-headed and mendacious policy for so long under Theresa May at the Home Office and now at 10 Downing Street”.

He says foreign students add “immeasurably” to the high status of British universities. “Many of our loyal alumni are in India and China etc, promising good future relations, but not, of course, in the current climate.”

“May’s widely reported insulting slap in the face to Indian students was regarded as directly responsible for her failed trip to India. Not only Indian but Chinese students now feel unwelcome here. They are rejecting us in droves and are now widely embraced by Australia, America and European countries.”

Last week the Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, called for May to apologise for the Home Office crackdown on foreign students, saying it had been based on “phoney” numbers and bogus evidence.

He said May had repeatedly rejected the idea mooted by cabinet ministers including Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson of excluding students from the Conservatives’ target of bringing net immigration down to the tens of thousands.

Critics believe including students in the target has distorted government policy and led to the Home Office viewing the higher education sector with suspicion, rather than welcoming its contribution to the economy and its value in terms of “soft power” connections to the UK.

The latest publicly available figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, for 2015-16, show the number of Chinese students in the UK exceeded other nationalities, at 91,215, and has remained steady. By contrast, the number of Indian students in UK higher education in 2015-16 was down 44% in five years, at 16,745.

Leeds University is one of the top 20 recruiters of international students, both EU and non-EU, and in in 2015-16 had 6,585 international students. University College London had the highest number, 14,975. In 2014-15, 38% of students on Leeds postgraduates courses were from abroad.

In total, 14% of international students in UK higher education in 2015-16 were from outside the EU, and 6% were from the rest of Europe. Of those studying at postgraduate level, 46% were from outside the EU.

The top 10 non-EU countries for sending students were, in order, China, Malaysia, USA, India, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia.

The top 10 EU countries were Germany, France, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.

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