Theresa May is being urged to remove international students from the net immigration figures by a number of high-profile Conservative MPs, including a string of select committee chairs.
The prime minister remains determined not to change the system but is likely to come under intense pressure this spring when MPs lay down an amendment to the immigration bill.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, fears that there are enough potential rebels to inflict a defeat on the government.
Other potential rebels include MPs Johnny Mercer, Anna Soubry and Stephen Hammond, while there is also opposition to the current policy from Scottish Tories and the health select committee chair, Sarah Wollaston.
Morgan said she represented a “large, international-facing university in Loughborough” and said students were part of the “global Britain” brand.
She argued that even people who pushed most ardently for immigration caps or limits to free movement did not think students should be included in any crackdown.
“People realise that students are in a group of their own,” she added, describing the sector as a key British export.
The prime minister’s spokesman insisted that the position had not changed, arguing that the international definition of an immigrant was someone who arrives for a period of more than 12 months.
But Morgan pointed out that the ONS could be asked to draw up figures with and without students, and said the latter could be used for any political targets.
Wollaston said she hoped that May would be persuaded to take action: “I strongly support and have always supported taking students out of the immigration numbers. I think it is an important principle and sends a clear message that Britain wants to welcome students and they are a key part of our culture.”
The MP, who hopes the issue does not reach a parliamentary vote, argued the move was in the national interest and said that in the wake of the Brexit vote it would send a clear message that the UK was not just open for business but for students and education.
Following a suggestion earlier this week that the prime minister could be forced to make a change, the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson tweeted:
Paul Masterton, the Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, said he and colleagues were lobbying the Home Office over the issue.
“I have always held the view that students should not be included in the target. We need to clearly signal we are open to the brightest and best talent from across the globe coming here to study,” he said.
“International students take home positive relationships and experiences of the UK which are of huge benefit – we should be celebrating and encouraging that.”
Soubry said students should have been removed from the figures long ago.
Tugenhadt argued in the Evening Standard that there was no reason to prevent the brightest and best coming to Britain.
And Neill, who represents Bromley and Chislehurst on the outskirts of the capital, said the UK economy benefited massively from having top quality students coming to the country.
“I think there is no point including something in the figures that is artificial. The real objection was bogus colleges but they have been dealt with,” he said. “There is no issue with bone fide students coming here – it strengthens our international ties. It should be a no-brainer for a government that wants to be pro business and have a global outlook.”
However, despite the view of Rudd and other senior cabinet figures, such as Boris Johnson, who is in favour of the move, the prime minister is still resisting making the change.
Since being home secretary, May has believed that students should be included. Sources say that is partly because she does not want to undermine public confidence by appearing to fiddle with the figures.
Some have argued that a number of students also remain in the country after graduating, although new exit checks on migrants leaving the UK have suggested that is not as much of an issue as it was believed.
One government source said the only way to take action would be for the ONS to draw up separate figures with and without the students, and then for the Conservatives to take students out of their target. But Downing Street has not indicated any desire to take such a step.