A major tightening of immigration rules will prevent overseas students bringing tens of thousands of dependants to the UK.
The package, announced ahead of figures on Thursday which are expected to show net migration running at record levels, amounts to the “single biggest tightening measure a government has ever done”, Downing Street said.
Some 136,000 visas were granted to dependants of sponsored students in 2022, an increase from 16,000 in 2019 when the Tory election manifesto committed the party to reducing net migration.
The new restrictions are set to apply to overseas students beginning courses after January 2024.
They will ban overseas students, apart from postgraduates on research programmes, from obtaining visas for their dependants.
The move could hit universities which rely on foreign student fees and could also harm the UK’s reputation as an international destination, experts warned.
“Now is the time for us to make these changes to ensure an impact on net migration as soon as possible. We expect this package to have a tangible impact on net migration.
“Taken together with the easing of temporary factors, we expect net migration to fall to pre-pandemic levels in the medium term.”
The package strips international students of the right to bring dependants unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes and removes the ability for international students to switch out of the student visa route into work before their studies have been completed.
The measures also include reviewing the maintenance requirements for students and dependants and steps to clamp down on “unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration not education”, Mrs Braverman said.
Alongside that there will be better communication around the immigration rules to the higher education sector and to international students, and “improved and targeted enforcement activity”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, said: “This is not a wise move because every part of the UK benefits from the presence of international students and, if they are discouraged from coming to the UK, they won’t stay at home but instead go to our competitors.”
He added: “Given that international student fees subsidise the teaching of home students as well as UK research, I hope the Home Secretary will now be lobbying the Chancellor to help universities recoup their losses.”
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “Attracting the top students from around the world isn’t just good for our universities – it’s essential for our economy and building vital global relationships.
“But the number of family members being brought to the UK by students has risen significantly.”
Ministers are struggling to balance the political commitment to reduce net migration with the economic need of businesses to find staff to fill vacancies.
Ms Braverman suggested the dependants of students were likely to make a “more limited contribution to the economy” than migrants coming under the skilled worker route.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in an upbeat assessment of the UK’s economy, suggested that addressing labour shortages could trigger greater growth.
It suggested “fine-tuning the immigration system to alleviate sectoral and skilled labour shortages and enhance labour market flexibility”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have the flexibility to use our points-based system to ensure that we have the right numbers coming in, that match our needs.
“But you’ve got the commitment from the Prime Minister, that net migration needs to come down.”
Former Bank of England economist Andy Haldane, who sits on the Chancellor’s council of economic advisers, told the BBC the UK should be “liberal in our visa policies” to fill skills gaps.