Exiting the Eu: Science and Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 19th December 2016.

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Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 7:24 pm, 19th December 2016

I am afraid it has been hinted that I should make progress rather than take interventions.

If there are such difficulties, let us overcome them and make sure they do not apply to EU academics in future.

On student numbers, Universities UK talks about increased barriers to recruiting EU students. I understand there are some 115,000 EU students in the UK. They are entitled to loans from the British taxpayer, and to the right to stay and work after they cease studying. By contrast, our universities are spectacularly more successful in recruiting students from outside the EU, even though those students pay the full cost of their education and effectively help to subsidise all the other students, British and European, at university. Their rights to remain and work in the UK are more restricted. When we introduced full fees for foreign university students, the universities claimed that that would make it impossible for them to recruit from abroad. Happily, they were wrong—spectacularly wrong. I have no doubt that they will be equally wrong about their ability to continue to recruit EU students once we are no longer a member of the EU. The EU countries are closer and richer than many of the countries from which we recruit students who pay full fees.

When assessing the costs and benefits, we ought to take into account the cost to this country at present of giving loans to EU students, which are, inevitably, much more difficult to get back when they have left. Indeed, the official figures show that only 16% of EU students are currently repaying the loans they have received from the British taxpayer. [Interruption.] I do not know what the figures are, but I will venture some so that people can knock them down and come back with better ones. Supposing that 60% of the students—[Interruption.] Would Tim Farron like to intervene if he has a funny point to make? [Interruption.] No, we do not have any facts or figures; I am trying to elicit them. There are 115,000 students. I do not know how many of them have loans. Let us say that 60% take out loans. If only 16% repay them, that means it would cost the British taxpayer over £500 million a year to subsidise EU students. I hope that the Minister or Opposition Members can tell us the sum is less than that, but perhaps they are not interested. Perhaps they like dishing out British taxpayers’ money without calculating how much is at stake and for whom.

Universities are also rightly worried about whether immigration controls will impinge on our ability to recruit students from the EU. They have reiterated their demand that student numbers be excluded from the immigration figures. That is a somewhat disingenuous request—it is not what they really want. If students return to their home country after they have studied here, their net contribution to the net immigration figure is zero. What universities mean, therefore, is not that they want the figures excluded, but that the limitations on students’ right to remain be lifted. They want to, as it were, sell university places by offering the added benefit of being able to get around our immigration controls. They want that in the present for those coming from outside the EU, and they want to maintain it in future for those coming from the EU when we are no longer a member.

That is not the right way to approach the issue. We should, of course, have immigration rules that allow us to recruit students from abroad but ensure that they return later, and that allow us to recruit academics from abroad, as we do at present, without creating added difficulties. If we have sensible and affordable policies to continue our funding and to recruit from abroad, which we ought to be able to do, and we do not impose any new restrictions on recruiting academics, the opportunities for British universities will be far greater than they imagine. I urge them to put their excessive modesty behind them, set aside their fear of change and embrace the opportunities that Brexit will give them.