London: Notwithstanding British Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge to cut immigration levels below 100,000 by 2015, only one in five Britons consider foreign students 'immigrants' and an overwhelming majority supports work permits for them, a new study shows.
The study, produced jointly by the thinktank British Future and Universities UK, assumes significance as universities in UK saw declining number of non-EU students for two consecutive years after unhindered growth for many years before 2010.
The study laments the startling decline of students from key markets such as India and reports that "new enrolments from India decreased by 49 per cent between 2010?11 and 2012?13; those from Pakistan by 38 per cent; and those from Saudi Arabia by 35.6 per cent".
The study also found that only 22 per cent of the people regard foreign students as 'immigrants'.
When respondents were told that foreign students do count as immigrants for the purposes of the government's target, the most common reaction was surprise and bafflement, the study found.
It found that three out of four Britons (75 per cent) think that international students should be allowed to stay and work in Britain after graduating from a British university.
With international students from outside the EU making up 12.8 per cent of the UK student population, the UK public recognised the significant benefits of having lots of international students coming to the UK to study.
An overwhelming majority of Britons also consider UK universities a "very valuable" asset to their country's cultural life and recognise the "ambassadorial role" foreign students play when they go back to their countries.
Nearly, 60 per cent of those surveyed also think that international students bring money into the local economy and 59 per cent says the government should not reduce international student numbers, even if that limits the government's ability to cut immigration numbers overall.
Notably, 66 per cent of Conservative voters are also opposed to reducing international student numbers, a group widely percieved to be at the forefront of anti-immigration debates in UK.
Based on public opinion, the report recommends the government to remove international students from net migration target and enhance opportunities for qualified graduates to stay in the UK to work and contribute to the economy.
Welcoming the findings of the report, Gordon Slaven, Head of Higher Education for the British Council said, "It is fantastic to see that the UK public welcomes international students, and recognises the tremendous academic and cultural contribution they make to the UK. "