By Lewis Denison, ITV News Westminster Producer
International sponsored students will no longer be allowed to bring dependants with them to the UK, it has been announced in an overhaul of immigration rules for those studying in Britain.
The rules are being changed to reduce the huge number of dependants - children and spouses of students - arriving in the UK after the number rocketed from 16,000 in 2019 to 136,000 in 2022.
Changes will be brought in for students starting January 2024, in order to allow time to plan.
PhD students will be exempt from the changes which are designed to target dependents of those studying masters degrees and there will be a clampdown on unscrupulous immigration agents offering educational routes as a way to migrate to the UK.
International masters students will no longer be allowed to switch from student to work visas before studies conclude they will still be allowed to remain in the UK for two years after.
Changes to rule for international students in full:
Removing the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes
Removing the ability for international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed
Reviewing the maintenance requirements for students and dependants
Steps to clamp down on unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting inappropriate applications to sell immigration not education
Better communicating immigration rules to the higher education sector and to international students
Improved and more targeted enforcement activity
The announcement comes as part of the government's drive to cut net migration after recent figures showed it was failing to fulfil a manifesto commitment.
Rishi Sunak told Cabinet on Tuesday morning the changes "would make a significant difference to the numbers", Downing Street said.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman outlined the announcement, Number 10 added, saying it was "important to strike the right balance between acting decisively on tackling net migration and protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK".
The Conservatives promised to cut the number of migrants coming to the UK down from 226,000 in their 2019 manifesto but in the year to June 2022, numbers hit 504,000.
It was an all-time record - higher than it ever was before Brexit - and is thought still to be running at record levels.
Announcing the migration changes to MPs in a written ministerial statement, Ms Braverman said: "This package strikes the right balance between acting decisively on tackling net migration and protecting the economic benefits that students can bring to the UK.
"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."
Downing Street has insisted the new rules relating to overseas students “strike the right balance” when asked if the measures would disproportionately affect women especially from countries such as Nigeria who make up the large bulk of dependants.
“We believe this strikes the right balance between acting decisively on net migration and ensuring we remain competitive in attracting international students," the PM's spokesman said.
Mr Sunak has now backed away from Boris Johnson's promise to cut net migration to below 226,000 but insisted while flying to Japan last week for the G7 that he did want to reduce the numbers.
Pushed on whether he was sticking with the manifesto commitment, he said, "I do want to bring legal migration down".
But he made a distinction between "illegal migration" - which he described as "undoubtedly the country's priority" - and people coming to the UK legally under visa schemes.
Mr Sunak said he was "committed to bringing those numbers [of legal migrants] down", but did not specify a time scale, or an amount, and was explicit his priority is reducing the numbers coming across the channel in small boats and without prior permission through other routes.
More than 44,000 asylum seekers crossed the English Channel last year, more than ever before, which is why the PM has made 'stopping the boats' one of his top priorities.
Ms Braverman has been leading the charge to cut Channel crossings, with the plan to detain then deport illegal immigrants to Rwanda.
"While illegal migration is rightly our priority given the acute challenges that we face in the Channel, we must not lose sight of the importance of controlling legal migration as well," she said at the National Conservatism Conference last week.
But controversy around a speeding ticket she received last year has been a distraction since news of it broke over the weekend.
It has been reported she asked civil servants, and then a personal aide, to help her to arrange a private speed awareness course to avoid points on her licence.
She insisted "nothing untoward happened" while dealing with the ticket, adding "I was speeding, I regret that. I paid the fine and I took the points".
Ms Braverman responded "I'm here to stop the boats" when asked if she was going to resign while walking into No 10 on Monday.Downing Street said Prime Minister Sunak was still considering whether or not to order an investigation into Suella Braverman's conduct.
The prime minister's official spokesman said: "He is still looking at all the requisite information."