Ihave a very clear view on immigration. It must be legal, it must be controlled and it must be fair. And fundamentally net migration needs to come down. My starting point is simple. It should be this country – and your Government – that decides who comes here. That’s why I have made stopping the boats one of my five priorities. We cannot allow people to come here illegally at the whim of criminal gangs. It’s not fair on those who have played by the rules. It’s not fair on those who desperately need our help but can’t get it because our asylum system is overwhelmed by people travelling here through safe countries. And it’s not fair on the British people who are having to spend nearly £6 million a day to put up illegal migrants in hotels.
But it’s not just a question of legality. We can’t have uncontrolled legal migration either. That’s unfair too. It leads to unmanageable pressures on housing, schools and hospitals in many of our communities. And when it is too high and too fast, it can make it difficult for communities to integrate new arrivals. That’s why in our 2019 manifesto the Government committed to bringing down net migration. And it is why when we left the European Union, we ended decades of uncontrolled migration under free movement within the EU and introduced a new points-based system to give us full control of our borders.
This means we can now control the numbers who come here while ensuring we access the skills and talent needed by our businesses and our NHS. Indeed, more than half of the skilled workers who have arrived in the past year are working in health and social care. But this new approach has also given us the ability to adjust our system to meet the changing needs of our economy and society or to respond to evidence of abuse or unintended consequences. And the change we need now is very clear. The Office for National Statistics figures published at the end of 2022 show that net migration has risen significantly and is higher than it was before the pandemic.
Some of this increase is a result of temporary factors, including a post-Covid surge and our resettlement schemes for those fleeing war and persecution. More than 174,000 have come from Ukraine alone. It was right that we opened our hearts and our homes to the Ukrainian people – and this paper was right to call for it. But part of the increase in net migration is a staggering rise in the number of dependents coming to the UK alongside international students. We have seen a more than eight-fold increase between 2019 and 2022, from 16,000 to 136,000 – the vast majority of which accompany taught masters students. The fact that we attract so many international students is a fantastic tribute to the strength of our world-leading universities. This is not just a source of pride for our country, it’s also a source of economic strength because those students make a vital economic contribution through their student fees and ultimately their wages. That’s why we set a target to host 600,000 international students here and we’ve met it almost a decade early. But this cannot come at the expense of our commitment to lower net migration.
So on Tuesday we set out a plan to bring down net migration with steps to reform the visa system for international students. We will remove the right to bring dependents on the student visa route unless you are on a postgraduate research programme. The numbers suggest this might be being used by some as a loophole so we will close it. We will remove the ability to switch out of the student route into work routes until studies have been completed. We will clamp down on unscrupulous international student agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications. And we will improve targeted enforcement activity including an intelligence-led review of remittances by those on student visas. We will also look to explore alternative options for eligibility, including a system which differentiates between the quality of institutions. In time we could still allow our very best and brightest students to bring some dependents when studying at our universities while preventing institutions from selling immigration rather than education.
This is the fair way to balance the economic benefit of continuing to support our higher education sector while reducing the number of dependents who inevitably make a much more limited economic contribution than students or those coming under the skilled worker route. Let me be clear. These changes are not about being anti-immigrant. We should never allow anyone to make that charge against us. No one could be prouder of our history of legal migration – from our place in the world as a sanctuary for the most in need to the generations of families who have come here, contributed here and made their home here. It’s a basic question of fairness and control. And I will always do what is fair and right. To me it is clear and unarguable: net migration is simply too high. I will bring it down.