Norfolk and Suffolk universities warn of multi-million pound loss if overseas student numbers are slashed

Government plans to reduce the number of international students in the UK would cost the region's universities more than �10m a year in lost fees and take at least �8m annually from the local economy, the EDP has learnt.

The potential cost was revealed as local universities backed a call by parliament's home affairs select committee to abandon the move, amid claims it could 'cripple' the sector.

Ministers want to tighten the entry rules for non-EU students to gain a visa as part of a pledge to reduce net annual immigration from 220,000 to tens of thousands by 2015.

But, at a time when universities are digesting this week's 4pc fall in funding and bracing themselves for bigger cuts to come, there is strong resistance to anything that could restrict the number of overseas students, who pay fees of between �10,000 and �12,000 per year.

UEA vice chancellor Prof Edward Acton said: 'International students are vitally important both to the cultural richness of UK higher education and, crucially, to our financial stability, particularly in the current climate. It is imperative that genuine students are not deterred from coming to the UK.'

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On Thursday, the home affairs select committee attacked the government's plans in a report that said: 'There has been a consistent tendency, under both current and previous governments, to rush through complex changes to the immigration system. Such unnecessary haste leads to poor decision making.

'The government has stated that it does not wish to target legitimate students but, at the same time, we would caution against measures which could be detrimental to a thriving, successful industry.'

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A UEA spokesman estimated the government measures would halve the number of international students it could attract.

It currently has 1,989 overseas students out of a total student body of 14,302. Of those, the 1,442 who started their courses this year will pay fees totalling �27.6m throughout their studies.

All international students have to guarantee spending at least �600 a month on living costs to get their visa. On the basis of that minimum spend, at least �16.5m is going into the Norwich and Norfolk economy on expenses.

While it is not possible to be precise, if overseas student numbers halved, a conservative estimate would see �10m removed from UEA's income and �8m from the local economy.

University Campus Suffolk (UCS) currently has only 20 international students. But, as a relatively new institution, it is hoping to increase the number in future years.

A spokesman said: 'Our current number of international students is a small proportion of our student body, so their economic value to the local economy at the moment is limited.

'However the issue is that the proposed changes may restrict our ability to grow our international student numbers, and for us and the local area to benefit from the income and local economy spend which they will bring in the future.

'It is also not just the monetary value that would be affected, but also the cultural benefits that international students bring to both the university and the community within which they live.'

Nuca also has 20 international students.

Although no-one was available to comment yesterday, earlier this year Angela Tubb, academic registrar, said: 'Being a specialist art, design and media institution providing degree-level courses, we have tended to recruit international students directly from their home countries, but we are seeing an increasing number of well qualified international students from UK schools and colleges applying to come here.

'We will be extremely disappointed if those genuine international students are unable to study here because of restrictions placed on pre-degree level visas.'

Prof Acton, who has joined scores of vice chancellors in lobbying against the proposals, said: 'I am delighted to see that the home affairs select committee has really listened to our concerns and I sincerely hope that the government will take heed of its recommendations.'

Prof Acton said he was pleased that the committee had recognised the importance of pre-degree language programmes, including those taken at INTO UEA, where 538 students are currently enrolled - with 60pc expected to go on to undergraduate study.

He said there was a huge difference between bogus language schools and those which worked in partnership with universities to prepare students for a sound start to their university courses.

And he added: 'We are extremely grateful to the committee, which has agreed with the vast majority of our objections to these proposals, including a recognition that the data currently being used to assess migration figures are simply not fit for purpose. Now we look forward to hearing the government's response.'

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