A fall in net migration to the UK was overshadowed as a group of influential MPs reacted angrily to the Government’s refusal to remove foreign students from its target.
A net flow of 163,000 migrants came to the UK in the year to June 2012, down from 247,000 in the previous year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
The Coalition hailed its “tough reforms” but was immediately scalded by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee for rejecting calls to take international students out of its target to reduce non-EU migration to the tens of thousands by 2015.
“The Government should listen, think again and change course,” the committee said.
The number of immigrants fell from 589,000 to 515,000, while those leaving the country rose from 342,000 to 352,000.
The most common reason for migrating to Britain remains study, the ONS said, but this was also declining “significantly”.
Some 197,000 foreign students arrived in the period, down 42,000 on the previous year, while the number of visas issued for study – 209,804 – was 20 per cent lower.
In a report last year, the BIS Committee said the inclusion of international students in net migration figures risks undermining a world-class export market.
In an official response, the Home Secretary said all the UK’s major competitors include students in net migration figures.
The BIS Committee said: “The Government’s response ... seeks to underplay the urgency of the problem and thus excuse the failure to act decisively to address this serious matter.”
Sponsored visa applications rose 3 per cent in the university sector, but fell 62 per cent, 69 per cent and 14 per cent for further education, English language schools and independent schools respectively.
Sarah Mulley, associate director at think-tank Institute for Public Policy Research, said the Government’s progress towards its target was being driven by falling numbers of international students, but warned this will only have a short-term effect.
She added that the target could not be achieved without “radical changes that go far beyond the student visa regime”.
There was a “significant” decrease in the number of immigrants from New Commonwealth countries, mainly Africa and the Indian subcontinent. The figure was down 51,000 at 117,000.
A total of 62,000 arrived from countries which joined the EU in 2004, including Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, down 24,000 from the previous year.
And 173,000 people migrated to the UK for work, which was down 10 per cent from 194,000 in the previous year.
The figures come as the Government introduces a range of measures aimed at lowering net migration to the tens of thousands. UK Border Agency officials will interview more than 100,000 student visa applicants from “high-risk” countries outside the EU to crack down on bogus students.