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First major speech on immigration from Theresa May

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, made her first major immigration speech  recently.

In her first major speech on migration, the home secretary disclosed that she intends to drastically reduce the flow of 160,000 overseas students who come to the UK to study on below degree-level courses in further and higher education colleges and that she also intends to end the right to permanent settlement for more than 100,000 skilled workers and overseas students who come to Britain each year.

Those on below degree-level courses are nearly half the 320,000 students who come to study in Britain each year.

May was anxious to reassure Britain’s prestigious universities that students coming to study on degree-level courses and above would not be affected by the new curbs.

“I want a system where we continue to attract the top students coming to our top universities,” she said, adding that students studying at privately funded colleges were much more likely to overstay than those at universities.

May’s speech also sought to row back on David Cameron’s announcement – made during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday – that 30,000 skilled migrants working for multinational companies would be excluded from the proposed immigration cap next year.

She indicated that while they would not be included in the annual cap, their numbers would be limited by a minimum salary level – probably about £40,000 a year – or other criteria to ensure that they were coming to do managerial or specialist-level jobs.

Of note is the fact that the current system already incorporates minimum salary levels based on the type of position being offered. This reflects the fact that different occupations may have different salary expectations, such as when comparing engineering with education. Some have voiced the opinion that a blanket minimum salary would put recruitment for education and parts of healthcare at a disadvantage.

The home secretary’s hastily-arranged set piece speech came after this week’s highly critical report by the Commons home affairs select committee, which warned that the proposed immigration cap would only cover 20% of migrants to the UK each year and would therefore be ineffective in reducing overall net non-EU migration levels.

MPs also highlighted that the temporary cap, which has been in place since July, is already damaging British business and research.

But May insisted this was a myth and said it was possible to reduce net migration without damaging the economy.

She acknowledged that the immigration cap was only one way of doing so, and indicated her intention to take “fast and decisive action” to maintain “steady downward pressure” on each of the main routes into Britain – skilled workers, overseas students or people travelling on family reunion visas.

How keeping families apart would sit alongside legislation that prevents families being kept apart unreasonably was not made clear.

The home secretary also confirmed that Labour’s plans for a system of “earned citizenship” to provide a route to a British passport were being dropped by the coalition.

The curb on permanent settlement rights for overseas students is likely to include a time limit on student visas, as well as closing post-study work concessions. This goes back to a previous system that was changed to encourage students educated in the UK to stay and contribute to business and the economy.