University leaders and politicians have defended the benefits of international students to UK research and economic growth, as the government considers curbing numbers in a growing dispute over immigration.

Rishi Sunak’s government is grappling with ways to cut net migration to the UK after the Office for National Statistics on Thursday found it had hit an all-time high. The increase was driven partly by the record 476,000 visas issued to overseas students in the year to September.

Downing Street on Friday played down reports that ministers were considering banning international students from all but the most elite institutions.

But officials are examining other ways to restrict numbers, including by limiting the ability of people on study visas to bring dependants and by cracking down on “low-quality” degrees that do not help students improve their skills or career prospects.

University leaders strongly opposed any recruitment bans, saying even rhetoric aimed at international students risked harming a sector reliant on them as community members and a lucrative source of income.

Former universities minister Lord Jo Johnson said student flows were crucial to the UK’s “competitiveness as a knowledge economy”.

“Without growth in international students, this country can kiss goodbye to being a science superpower,” he said. “International students are currently not only providing the funding, they are providing the skills pipeline into research in the UK.”

Any limit to overseas recruitment would row back on a previous government target to increase international student numbers to 600,000 by 2030.

Rapid recruitment growth meant universities met that goal in 2020-21, helping them to better invest in research and innovation, according to Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

He said that international students’ fees cross-subsidised research and teaching, especially in subject areas such as technology, science and arts where the cost of courses exceeds the £9,250 paid annually by domestic students.

James Richardson, director of global partnerships at Sheffield Hallam University, said talk of restricting student numbers had already hit the UK’s global reputation as a provider of higher education.

“Other countries will jump on to this,” he said. “They have a plan to increase international student numbers. We are one of their main competitors.”

Sector leaders also rejected the suggestion of limiting students’ ability to bring dependants.

Richardson said restrictions would primarily hit recruitment of postgraduate students, who tended to enrol in UK universities to upskill mid-career.

“If I was working and I had a partner and child, of course I would take them with me,” he said, estimating that Sheffield Hallam risked losing half of the 1,000 Nigerian students recruited annually if dependants were barred.

The number of dependants of international students has risen sharply in the past three years; in the year to September, 116,300 visas were issued to dependants, including 51,600 from Nigeria. To bring family members, students must show they are self-supporting and pay an NHS surcharge.

Stephen Marston, vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, said any curbs would cause the UK to lose out to competitors such as Australia and Canada, which allow students to bring family members.

“What we will lose is some of the most talented, globally mobile students,” he said. “When this country is short of skills, why would we be doing that?”

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of Million Plus, which represents newer universities, said falls in real-terms funding meant international students were crucial, particularly for “post-92” institutions working to develop training and research in local areas targeted by the government’s “levelling up” agenda.

“Universities are looking at how to respond to the shrinking unit of resource,” she said. “Given growing financial pressures, something that pulls away from our ability to self-finance would be incredibly damaging.”

Downing Street said the government was fully supportive of universities, describing them as “some of the very best in the world”.

“We are looking at the issue of student dependants and the quality of degrees . . . following the [migration] figures released yesterday.”

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