"Why are we putting off overseas students?" asks new CIFE Chairman in an article written in July 2012

The government's current immigration policy is definitely affecting the choices of top-class international students deciding to pursue their further and higher education abroad, according to the new Chairman of the Council for Independent Education (CIFE), the national association which represents private sixth form colleges.

Mario Di Clemente, Principal of Cambridge Tutors College in Croydon, in which around 100 international A-level students completed A levels in 2011-2012, the majority of whom have been offered places at Russell Group universities, says: "CIFE colleges are finding that more and more potential students are looking to the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, and may be doing so out of a belief that UK policy is now much more unfriendly and unsympathetic to their visa applications to study here as bona fide students."

He added that, as a professional association now celebrating its 40th anniversary, CIFE represents colleges which provide an encouraging example of how to survive and prosper in the face of change and challenge. "We have never been more outward-looking and adaptable than we are today. However, one of the greatest challenges faced by those of us, not just in CIFE but across the country, who continue to attract highly capable and ambitious overseas students, has been to convince those same students that ours is a country which still welcomes international students and believes that theirs is a contribution which is greatly valued by schools, colleges, universities and even potential employers."

"In spite of all the negative publicity and regular “jumping-through-hoops” generated by the UK’s visa regulations these past few years, many overseas students have persevered with their applications and have won a place at their preferred British institution. They believe that this country’s well-earned international reputation for providing a gold standard in education is worth the effort, the visa form-filling, the guarantees of self-funding, the interviews by UK Border Agency officers and other daunting bureaucratic aspects of entry."

"Rather than needing to cut our overseas student numbers by tens of thousands or opening overseas campuses instead of welcoming them to our own home-based institutions, we should remind ourselves that in our globalised world educational opportunities should continue to extend way beyond a young person’s own national borders."

Di Clemente concludes with a reminder to the government that British education is still world-renowned and a massive invisible export.

"It will be a great shame," he warns, "if over-elaborate processes for obtaining a student visa turn genuine, high-grade students away from the UK and into the arms of Australian, U.S. and Canadian colleges."

John Southworth, Principal of Lansdowne College, echoes the concern:

"The government's current immigration policy is definitely affecting the decision of many international students as to where to pursue their further and higher education. UK was once the clear choice for most, but is becoming secondary with many now opting for other international destinations (such as the USA, Australia and France) which make the visa process more straightforward and ultimately less stressful. Some countries such as China are now setting up their own A level colleges to cater for the increasing demand. Most believe that UK policy is now much more unfriendly and unsympathetic to their visa applications to study here as bona fide students.

The key is to reassure the international community that young people are still welcome to study in the UK and that we are happy to educate them in the best system in the world. Surely this is good for the UK economy, good for business and good for Britain!"

In a recent Sunday Times article titled Reopen the doors to foreign students - visa rule changes are hurting our economy', Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon and Paul Blomfield Labour MP for Sheffield Central write:

The government is right to tackle abuses such as bogus colleges, but the pressure to bring figures down means that genuine students are getting caught in the net. Our borders policy should not be in competition with our growth policy. After all, it’s not the case that international students are displacing domestic students. The revenue they bring in helps to subsidise the facilities and teaching for British-born students.

It’s not just money to fill the coffers that we’re driving away, but also the chance to build long-term economic ties. Those who study here in the UK develop a great affection for this country. When they return home and rise to prominent roles in business and politics, they turn first to Britain when making decisions on trade and investment. Every university has countless examples of international graduates who have returned with contracts for UK companies. Business in general benefits enormously from the contribution of international postgraduates to search and development.

Zahawi and Blomfield argue that "the problem lies in the way our immigration system views international students. Current rules treat foreign-born students as migrants and include them in the headline immigration figures. Many of our constituents are concerned about the levels of immigration to Britain in recent years. Yet few of them would view the international students who arrive here to study, pay us for the privilege and then return home with a degree as part of the same phenomenon.... Taking students out of the net migration targets would enable us to look again at the changes that have been introduced.

CIFE supports this proposal wholeheartedly. Students are not immigrants and treating them as such makes it impossible for this country to capitalise on one field in which we still lead the world.