THERESA May is facing fresh calls to ditch her Government's controversial immigration target after new figures showed the vast majority of overseas students do not overstay their visas.

The first data compiled from exit checks - introduced more than two years ago to track the departure from Britain of more than 100 million air, rail and ferry travellers - prompted warnings official figures were over-estimating net migration to the UK for study purposes.

Focus has fallen on a gap between the estimated numbers of international students who enter the UK and leave the country after the end of their courses.

The difference - which has averaged around 100,000 a year since 2012 - fuelled suggestions tens of thousands were remaining following completion of their studies.

But on Thursday the Home Office published long-awaited figures from the exit checks regime, which was rolled out in April 2015 to build a more complete picture of whether those who entered the UK left when they were supposed to.

The report focused on 1.3 million visas granted to non-European Economic Area nationals which expired in 2016/17, without an extension to stay longer.

It showed that out of 181,024 expired visas, 176,407, or 97.4 per cent, showed the students had left the country in time. There were similar proportions for work, 95.4 per cent, and visitor, 96.7 per cent, visas.

This gave an overall percentage of 96.3 per cent of visa holders departing before their leave to be in the country ran out.

Sir Ed Davey for the Liberal Democrats stressed the importance of foreign students to Britain’s culture and economy but argued that the Tory Government’s arbitrary immigration target of cutting net migration to below 100,000 a year overlooked these benefits.

"I hope when the conclusions of this overdue analysis are published, reason and evidence will finally triumph over the Conservatives' headline-grabbing, prejudice-appeasing nonsense. This must include dropping overseas students from official immigration statistics,” declared the London MP.

"Higher education is one of Britain's most successful export industries. We must not let it be destroyed by the Conservatives' short-sighted obsession with immigration targets,” he added.

Carol Monaghan, the SNP’s Westminster spokeswoman on education, also said foreign students coming to the UK to study should be celebrated and encouraged, “not met instead by plans for a crackdown by a reckless Tory government obsessed with migration numbers and a hard Brexit”.

Echoing the call for foreign students not to be included in the Government’s net migration target, she repeated the SNP’s call for the reinstatement of the post-study work visa scheme “to help encourage students who have studied at our universities to remain and contribute to the UK after they have graduated”.

The new official figures on student visas come as the Home Office has commissioned an expert report on the effect EU and non-EU students have on Britain's labour market and economy.