A high-power parliamentary committee on Tuesday pulled up the U.K. government over its restrictive student visa policy and warned that the move to drastically reduce the number of non-European Union overseas students could cost the British economy as much as £3.6 billion over the next four years at a time when it was struggling to emerge from the deepest recession in more than 30 years.

Fee-paying non-EU foreign students, who are charged up to three times more than their domestic/EU peers for the same course, contribute nearly £9 billion a year to the economy and are regarded as cash cows by Britain’s cash-starved universities.

The Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons accused the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May of making the policy on the hoof and without studying its impact. It highlighted concerns over the lack of an “evidence-based approach” to student visas policy and questioned the way the government collected immigration statistics.

The report follows a series of restrictions, including changes to eligibility criteria, announced by Ms. May recently, citing allegations of widespread abuse of student visas following reports that many prospective economic migrants used them to gain entry into Britain. The restrictions form part of the Conservative Party's election promise to its grassroots supporters to bring down immigration from “hundreds of thousands” a year to “tens of thousands” a year.

The policy has been attacked by universities, leading businesses and the Conservatives’ own coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

The committee chairman Keith Vaz of the Labour Party said the MPs were “disappointed” with the government’s approach.

“We reiterate the need for an immigration policy which is both evidence-based and does not adversely affect the British economy,” he said.

The National Union of Students said the report confirmed that the policy was driven by political considerations. “Despite warnings from other ministers, the business community, students, as well as the education institutions who have seen their funding slashed, the Home Secretary has pushed through changes to visas in order to fulfil rash pre-election promises,” said an NUS spokesperson.

Immigration Minister Damian Green claimed the changes were introduced after full and extensive consultation. “The extent of the crisis which this government inherited in the immigration system meant that tough early action was necessary,” he said.

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