Why the U.K.'s Latest Immigration Plan Isn't Playing to Voters

British oxford students
A group of graduates at Oxford University, Oxford, England, May 28, 2011. The British government is reportedly considering a plan to cut the number of foreign students. Paul Hackett/Reuters

Immigration is a maddening subject for the U.K. government. Economically, it's almost entirely a good thing; immigrants pay in a lot more to the country than they take out and their relative youth helps rebalance the population of old British people hanging around playing golf, voting Brexit and generally not doing much productive. Politically, though, the issue is normally toxic. Many Britons don't like the idea of immigration being as high as it is, whether because of concern about public services, perceived wage depression (however limited its effects), or darker, more xenophobic views.

But the case of foreign students is an exception. Here, the wonks in Westminster and the man and woman on the street are much more in agreement. Research by Manchester University's Rob Ford has found that students from outside the EU are the only type of immigrant that Britons believe are a net benefit to the country. Extensive polling by the migration expert Scott Blinder shows that, when they consider "immigrants," only 29 percent of British people are thinking of foreign students (they're much more likely to imagine asylum seekers, for example). Only 31 percent of his sample wanted to reduce the numbers of university students.

Which makes it completely baffling that, as reported by The Guardian, Britain is apparently considering plans to almost halve the number of people from overseas studying at its universities from 300,000 to around 170,000.

Having lots of foreign students in the country brings all kinds of benefits. Their hefty fees help subsidize British students' education, they spend about three years as better-off-than-average consumers in towns across the country, and if they leave afterwards they bolster Britain's "soft power" relations with their native lands (British-educated people run multi-national companies and government departments across the world). That's just three examples.

And voters—usually tricky creatures—actually agree.

So why is the government thinking about this? Presumably, it's about numbers. A long-standing target first set in 2010 means it is working towards cutting net migration into Britain to the "tens of thousands" from around 300,000 now. Barely anybody thinks that will happen (even the Office for Budget Responsibility, the government's official spending watchdog, assumes that numbers won't go that low when it draws up its forecasts) because it would require a fundamental reshaping of British society and would trash the economy. But ministers still need to look like they're trying, and Theresa May, first as home secretary and now as prime minister, has always been among the most enthusiastic.

Controlling the number of student visas handed out seems like a comparatively easy way to shave a few tens of thousands off the total. But it risks not only hitting the economy—and especially Britain's world-class higher education sector—hard, but also completely failing to address the public's desire for more immigration control as it does so.