Net migration is too high, and the Government are committed to bringing it down to sustainable levels. The most recent official statistics estimated that net migration in the year to June 2022 was at 504,000. This is partly due to temporary and exceptional factors such as the UK’s Ukraine and Hong Kong schemes. Last year, more than 200,000 Ukrainians and 150,000 Hong Kong British nationals overseas made use of the routes to life or time in the United Kingdom. Those schemes command broad support from the British public, and we were right to introduce them.
The Government introduced a points-based system in 2020 to regain control of our borders post Brexit. We now need to decide who comes to the UK and operate a system that can flex to the changing needs of the labour market, such as the skills needs of the NHS. However, immigration is dynamic, and we must adapt to take account of changing behaviours and if there is evidence of abuse. The number of dependants arriving alongside international students has risen more than eightfold since 2019, from 16,000 in the year to December 2019 to 136,000 in the year ending December 2022. Dependants of students make a more limited contribution to the economy than students or those coming under the skilled worker route, but more fundamentally, our system was not designed for such large numbers of people coming here in this manner.
Yesterday, we introduced a package of measures to help deliver our goal of reducing net migration. The package includes removing the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on research postgraduate courses and removing the ability for international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed. This is the right and fair thing to do. It ensures we protect our public services and housing supply against undue pressure and we deliver on the promises we have made to the public to reduce net migration.
Our education institutions are world-renowned, and for good reason, and the Government remain committed to the commitments in the international education strategy, including the goal of 600,000 international students coming to the United Kingdom each year. But universities should be in the education business, not the immigration business. We are taking concerted action to deliver a fair and effective immigration system that benefits our citizens, our businesses and our economy. We are determined to get this right because it is demonstrably in the national interest.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and while I thank the Minister for his response, it is disappointing that the Home Secretary is not here, and that we have had to ask an urgent question rather than a statement being made to the House.
International students make an invaluable contribution to our economy. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, last year they provided nearly £43 billion to the UK economy, and in my constituency of Glasgow North West alone the economic benefit was over £83 million. What assessments have been carried out of the economic impact of this change on the university sector, and on university towns? International students enrich our society and have skills that are proving ever more vital in this post-Brexit climate, which has seen the UK deprived of workers across key sectors. There are currently labour shortages in healthcare, STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—and IT to name but a few sectors; how can the Minister fail to recognise that this policy will simply exacerbate these?
The reality is that many students coming to the UK look beyond their studies and want their families to be part of that experience. Without a way for overseas students to bring their families, many will opt to go elsewhere, and any drop in international student numbers will cause further harm to universities that are already facing financial difficulties. This policy makes the Home Secretary’s agenda crystal-clear: she is launching an attack on migrants regardless of the benefits they bring to the UK, and in pursuing this short-term reactionary programme international students are being caught in the crossfire.
In Scotland international students’ contribution to university campuses and our wider society is celebrated, but Scotland will suffer the consequences of this misjudged policy. Once again this is indicative of how out of tune this Conservative Government are with the Scottish people. If the Government are insistent in pursuing their hostile environment, will they now accept that Scotland’s needs, and wants, are different from theirs?
Finally, will the Government now devolve immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament, to allow us to choose a way that benefits our communities and society?
No, we will not devolve immigration policy to the Scottish Government: it is right that the UK benefits from one immigration policy and that is the way it will always continue to be under this Conservative Government.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady was misguided on a number of fronts. First, it was this Government who created the international education strategy, which set a target of attracting 600,000 international students to the UK. We have met that target 10 years early and are likely to exceed it this year. The action we are taking today does not take away from that goal: it ensures that there are no unintended consequences. It was never the intention of that policy to enable a very large number of dependants to come to the UK with those students. It is right that universities attract the best and the brightest and that those who are on longer courses, such as PhDs or MPhils, can bring dependants with them, but it is not right that education is a back door for immigration into the country.
The statistics I quoted earlier show the significant increases in the number of student dependants. In 2019, 16,000 visas were issued to student dependants. Last year, the number was 136,000—an increase of eight and a half times. In 2019, for every 10 Indian students, there was one visa issued to a dependant. Last year, that doubled to one in five. For Nigerian students studying in this country, 65,000 dependant visas were issued in 2022 to only 59,000 students.
We do not want to do anything that would harm the international reputation of our universities, but it is right that we pay particular concern to pressure on housing supply and public services, to integration and community cohesion and to making good on our commitment to the British public that we will bring down net migration, which is what the vast majority of the public want to see done.
When we invite people to our country, it is important that there is good provision of housing, school places and healthcare, but there are huge stresses on the system. Can the Minister give the House some guidance on how much the capital and revenue set-up cost is for a migrant family coming in? When we were in the EU some time ago, it reckoned the cost was €250,000 for a migrant coming to an advanced country.
Obviously that cost varies widely depending on the country of origin and the skills of those individuals. The points-based system is set up in such a way as to encourage higher-skilled individuals to come to the UK for work purposes, but my right hon. Friend is right to say that it is a relatively accessible system, and that has meant large numbers of people entering the UK for a range of different reasons in recent years. We should be acutely concerned about the pressures that is putting on housing supply, public services and integration, particularly in those parts of the country with heated housing markets, such as the one he represents. That is why it is right that we take action of the kind we are taking today.
International students are much-valued contributors to our world-class higher education system, which is a great asset to our country. We and Universities UK recognise that a tenfold increase in the number of dependants joining students in the UK since 2018 creates significant challenges and that enforcement measures are long overdue. Therefore, as the Leader of the Opposition has made clear, our entire Front-Bench team does not oppose these changes for masters students.
However, as usual, the Government have failed to deliver an impact assessment for the new rules and have left many of the details vague. How many people will this change affect, in terms of both students and dependants? What will the actual impact be on the numbers? The Office for National Statistics defines an immigrant as somebody who has been here for more than a year or who is coming for more than a year, yet masters students are typically here for less than a year.
What is clear is that dependants of students are only a fraction of the story. In their 2019 manifesto, the Conservatives acknowledged that the Brexit vote was a bid to take back control of immigration, but since then net migration has skyrocketed from 226,000 to 500,000, which is a record high even if we exclude Ukrainians and Hongkongers. The number of work visas has increased by a staggering 95%. We are clear that that has happened because for 13 years, the Conservatives have failed to train up Britain’s home-grown talent to fill the vacancies we have and because there are 6 million people on NHS waiting lists in England alone, most of whom wish to return to the workforce.
We want and expect net immigration to reduce, and we have set out plans for how we will get more of Britain’s workers trained up and back to work. Today, the Leader of the Opposition has announced that we will ditch the flawed Government policy that allows businesses to undercut British workers by paying migrant workers 20% less in sectors assigned to the shortage occupation list. Will the Minister commit to scrapping the 20% wage discount on the going rate for shortage occupations? Nothing could be clearer: the Conservatives have lost control of immigration. We are committed on the Opposition Benches to maximising opportunities for Britain’s home-grown talent.
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman has had a damascene conversion to tighter border controls. Unfortunately, I do not think the British public will believe that. It is the same old Labour party—the party that has always believed in open borders. Its own leader campaigned for the leadership of the Labour party saying that he wanted to defend free movement. Only the other day, the chairwoman of the Labour party, Anneliese Dodds, said that she expected migration to rise under a future Labour Government. It is the same flip-flopping approach—and the same open door policy.
We want to ensure that we bring net migration down. We consider that to be a solemn promise to the British public, and an important manifesto commitment. This is a significant policy, which I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman support, that will make a tangible difference on this issue. It will reduce very substantially the number of people coming into the country as dependants, but there might be more that needs to be done. We are determined to tackle this issue and to ensure that we bring net migration down.
The Minister is doing a difficult job very well. He has set out the context, and it is notable that the Opposition spokesperson shares that analysis. However, most students are temporary visitors, yet many of them are counted as permanent immigrants. Has my right hon. Friend considered changing the definition to include in the count only those who stay?
I respect my right hon. Friend and his deep knowledge of this area, but I do not think it is helpful to change the way in which the statistics are reported. I do think that we have to consider the fact that anyone coming into this country will place pressure on our housing supply and on public services, particularly if they are bringing dependants, including young children or elderly relatives, into the UK. In the present climate, in which there is significant pressure on public services and significant pressure on housing, particularly in certain parts of the country, that is extremely important.
We have seen, historically, that the vast majority of students leave the country and go back to their home country to continue their careers and lives. It is too early to say whether the graduate route will make a material difference to that. It may be, if individuals come to the UK to study and then spend a period of time here on the graduate route, and certainly if they bring dependants, that we will start to see a significant increase in the number of people staying here, making a life in the UK and not returning home, in which case policies of this kind will become more important.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
In a week when universities are celebrating all that international students bring with the “We Are International” campaign, the Home Office is setting about undermining the UK’s place in the highly competitive international education market. I am dismayed that the Labour party is supporting the Government’s measures. Canada, Australia and the US must be rubbing their hands in glee at yet more chopping and changing, which makes the UK less attractive.
Research published by the Higher Education Policy Institute last week shows that, in 2021-22, the benefit to the UK of international students stood at £41.9 billion, with every single constituency on these islands seeing a benefit. When their dependants come with them, those husbands or wives are often working—they are not a burden to the state—and they have to pay the immigration health surcharge as well.
What is the evidence for the policy the Minister has brought forward? The written statement yesterday speaks of issues with agents and of enhanced enforcement and compliance, so what data does he have to suggest that people are abusing what is already an incredibly expensive system? What equality impact assessment has he carried out, because Universities UK International has said that restricting dependants will have a
“disproportionate impact on women…from certain countries”?
Incidentally, those are countries such as Nigeria and India, where the market is growing. Finally, what discussions has he had with the Minister for Higher and Further Education in Scotland ahead of this announcement, and what impact assessment has he carried out on how it will affect institutions in Scotland?
We did think very carefully about this measure and had detailed conversations with colleagues across Government, including of course the Department for Education, and indeed with universities. In my experience, leaders of universities understand the issue we are grappling with here. They can see for themselves the significant increase in the number of dependants who have come to the UK in recent years, and why the Government would feel the need to take action.
The measures we are putting in place will ensure that there will still be a route for student dependants to come to the UK for research courses, such as PhDs, where people will be here for a sustained period of time, but there will not be that route when people are here for short courses. To give the hon. Lady an example, last year there were 315,000 foreign masters students in the UK. These are very large numbers of individuals, and if those people were to bring dependants at scale, it would put pressure on public services and on housing in the UK. I am surprised the hon. Lady does not appreciate that, particularly given the state of some public services in Scotland.
It is obviously right, when we see emerging trends in the immigration system that cause concern, that action is taken. When discussing net migration, we need to be clear about the factors that contribute to it. For example, British citizens returning to the UK and potentially bringing children with them also count towards the net migration statistics, but that is clearly not related to immigration policy.
On the wider system and the rationale behind this move, I suspect the Minister may have wanted to announce something slightly more comprehensive, rather than just to focus on student dependants. Does he agree that we should make sure the immigration system has the appropriate impact on the labour market and look more widely at things such as the salary thresholds throughout the system, as well as making the change that has been announced today?
I do think the package of measures that we have announced will make a tangible difference to net migration. Taken together with the easing of exceptional factors, such as Hong Kong BNO individuals coming to the UK over the next year or two, there is good reason to believe that net migration will fall and that we will be better placed to meet our important manifesto commitment.
However, my hon. Friend is right to say that it is critical that we do so, that we should consider further measures and that we have to think carefully about how migration interacts with the British labour market. It is quite wrong to perpetuate an economic model that is overly reliant on foreign labour, with people coming here and taking jobs from British workers, and not to tackle the core issue, which is the number of economically inactive people in our country.
Our higher education institutions operate in a global market, which is why universities such as Lancaster University attract students from over 100 different countries, many of whom come, study and then return. The Minister raised the issue of pressure on public services, which makes me wonder who he thinks has been in charge for the past 13 years, but my question to him is: what consultation has he had with universities such as Lancaster University about the implications for them in respect of things like the global league tables for universities?
We have given careful thought to this announcement, as I have said, and we have worked closely with the Department for Education, which is of course the bridge to universities. It is important to stress that we have met the Government’s target of 600,000 international students 10 years early and are likely to exceed it this year, so there is no suggestion that the number of international students is going to diminish rapidly.
What we are doing is tackling a particular issue—an unintended consequence of earlier liberalisations—which is the very significant increase in the number of dependants following international students. I would also say that it is not healthy for British universities to become overly reliant on international students. Just a few years ago, only 5% of the income of British universities came from international students. Today, it is 18% and growing. There are obviously benefits to having income from international students, but we should not be overly reliant on it.
When these measures have their effect, surely we will then be able to treat foreign students as the booming export that they are, rather than as immigration.
The education of international students is an important export industry. I believe that it is the UK’s fourth or fifth-biggest export industry, and that is a good thing, and it is supported by the Government. That is why we created the international education strategy that has proven to be so successful. But what we are doing today is ensuring that we do not see unintended consequences and unnecessary pressure on public services as a result.
What impact will these changes have on the number of students from overseas coming to study in British universities, and what will be the financial consequences? Has the Home Office made that assessment?
As I said, we have already met our target of 600,000 students coming to the UK from overseas. That is 10 years early; in fact, last year there were 605,000. We expect the numbers to increase this year beyond 600,000. There is no suggestion that universities will be short-changed as a result, but in the medium term it will obviously involve fewer dependants coming with those international students. For the reasons that I have set out, we think that is a good thing. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman does not.
This measure is wholly to be welcomed, but the fact is that legal migration is out of control and the British people did not vote for Brexit to replace mass migration from Europe with mass migration from the rest of the world. May I therefore press the Minister on the point made by my hon. Friend Kevin Foster that we will never deal with legal migration until we solve the labour problem? Home-grown employers in Britain are paying too low wages and trying to attract people from all over the world. Why do we not raise the threshold so that those who want to come here and get a job need to earn average earnings?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. He is right that, having left the European Union and taken back control of our borders and migration policy, it is critical that we make good on our promise to bring net migration down, because it does put intolerable pressure on public services and housing, and it does strain community cohesion, particularly when it happens at a scale and speed that is too great for many people in British society.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the workings of the points-based system and the salary thresholds for the shortage occupation list and for general work visas. The Government keep that under review, because we do not want to see employers reaching for international labour rather than seeking to recruit and train domestic labour, reducing unemployment and reducing the number of people who are on benefits.
The Home Secretary makes contradictory statements to different audiences and thinks that nobody notices her sleight of hand. Yesterday, she recommitted to bringing in 600,000 international students per year. Does the Minister now regret the fact that, having completely lost control of immigration figures, she actually expressed her desire to reduce student visas at last year’s Conservative party conference?
The Home Secretary and I are completely at one in our determination to reduce net migration. That is what our party stood on a manifesto to do and that is what we intend to achieve. The Home Secretary and I want to find ways in which we can tackle abuse and unintended consequences within the system, and the package of measures that we have set out this week will do so in this important area and, as Labour appears now to support it, in a clearly significant cross-party way.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As the Minister considers work visas, which have exploded, displacing investment in domestic skills and investment in modern working practices fit for the future, will he also answer this question: why it is right and fair for people studying a research degree to be able to bring their family into the country but not for people who are not doing primary research? Surely if those studying for MAs that do not require research cannot bring their family, no one should be able to do so?
We said in the announcement this week that, with the Department for Education, we will launch a consultation with the university sector to design a longer-term alternative to the system that previously operated, which could be a more nuanced approach. But I think that the determination that we have made this week is the right one, which is that those people coming into the UK to study will be able to bring in dependants only if they are doing those high-value, usually longer-term, research-based courses such as PhDs, and those coming for short courses will invariably not be able to do so. That will cut out some of the abuse that we have seen in the system and will focus universities on their primary responsibility, which is teaching and education, rather than in some cases being a back door to immigration and to work.
Later this afternoon, my much-valued international student Jacqueline will spend the last few hours of her time here before she completes her internship. She has been a massive asset to my office, as were the other London School of Economics interns and other interns I have had the privilege of working with over the last number of years. What should I say to her? Should I say, “Thank you—you have been a boon to this place and these islands” or, “You’re a problem that has to be controlled”?
It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman did not spread misinformation to his researcher or indeed anyone else. It was the Government, through the international education strategy, who created this commitment, which has proven to be so successful that it has led to 600,000 international students coming to the UK—perhaps including the lady he referred to. We also created the graduate route, which has enabled people—potentially including his researcher—to move seamlessly into the workplace here in the UK after their studies rather than having to apply immediately for a work or family visa as used to happen. There is no suggestion of any diminution in our support for universities or international students, but it is right that we get a grip on abuses or unintended consequences. That is what Governments have to do when trying to control an immigration system. Perhaps he does not want controlled immigration. We do, and that is why we have to take these steps.
International students studying high-quality courses at high-quality universities such as Keele in my constituency—the Minister knows it well—add a huge amount to our local economy. But is it not absolutely clear from the figures that the Minister quoted earlier showing the increase in dependant visas that some universities have, wittingly or otherwise, been selling immigration rather than education? Is it not vital that we get on top of that?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Universities such as Keele—I do know that university well—have played a critical role in the economic development of local communities, and we want to encourage that. But it is important that universities primarily focus on education, not creating courses marketed overseas to individuals whose primary interest is in coming to the UK for immigration and work purposes, with those courses being a back door to that.
Is not the truth that, since Brexit, excellent universities such as mine in Exeter have sought to replace those thousands of EU students they have lost with students from other parts of the world who tend, for cultural and other reasons, to bring more family members, spouses and children with them? Are not the Government having to clear up another Brexit mess of their own making? Will the Minister be honest with the House and explain how he will avoid discriminating against countries such as Nigeria and India, from which students do tend to bring dependants, and making us even more reliant on students from China?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a curious argument. Of course, it was as a result of leaving the European Union that we have created an entirely non-discriminatory immigration system that has enabled people to apply to come to the UK, whether for work purposes or as students, from anywhere in the world, rather than making it more difficult for those from outside the EU and having a large number of EU citizens come here. Today’s proposals will tackle this particular unintended consequence of the opening up to international students. I do not see any evidence that it will harm particular nationalities. There are some glaring examples such as the Nigerian one that I mentioned previously, but this will apply to everyone. It is an entirely non-discriminatory policy.
My right hon. Friend is completely right that we must choose who comes here and we must strike out abuse. Wimbledon has many English language schools and English language is a key part of the international education strategy. Given the specific and short-term nature of these students, and that they bring in no dependants and are not a cost on our public services, will he meet me and the leaders of the sector to discuss restoring work visas for this specific group of students?
I would be pleased to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. As I said earlier with respect to the announcement we made today, we will be carrying out a consultation with the Department for Education that will give universities the opportunity to set out their case and refine the policy if necessary. He highlights one of the other elements of the announcement we made this week, which is clamping down on abuse. There are a small number of unscrupulous education agents who may be supporting disingenuous applications that are selling immigration rather than education. One measure we are taking this week is to clamp down on those with much more targeted and effective enforcement activity.
My constituents do not share the Tory and Labour obsession with net migration. They understand that Scotland benefits from inward migration. In fact, Universities UK research shows that my constituency’s net economic benefit from international students is £170.8 million, which gives the lie to most of what the Minister has said. Continuing as a member of the United Kingdom is damaging Scotland’s universities, including Edinburgh Napier University and Herriot-Watt University in my constituency. First Brexit, now this. The Union has to work for both partners, so why will the Minister not sit down with the Home Secretary and consider devolving immigration policies relating to student visas to the Scottish Parliament?
As I said many times before, we have no intention of devolving immigration policy. On the broader questions, there is no material difference between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of unemployment or economic inactivity, so there is no compelling case for a bespoke immigration system for Scotland versus the rest of the United Kingdom. The sheer scale of the number of international students who have come into all parts of the UK, including Scotland, in recent years suggests that this Government’s policies have increased the number of international students, not diminished them.
I am pleased to say that UKVI is today a very well-run organisation under the superb leadership of an official in the Home Office called Marc Owen. In every one of the visa categories, it is meeting its service standard or significantly exceeding them. [Interruption.] I know Alison Thewliss always likes to deal in anecdote rather than statistics, but—I am afraid to disappoint her—it is.
I, for one, am very proud of the international students in my community. Oxford Brookes University and, of course, Oxford University pride themselves on being able to attract the best and brightest. This policy will make that harder. We value them because they bring value. They bring value of, on average, £400 million to the Oxfordshire economy. Why are the Government, and apparently the Labour party, intent on stifling our universities and our economy?
I have affection for the hon. Lady, but she is probably the greatest nimby in the House of Commons today. She always opposes new homes, new development and new infrastructure in and around Oxford, so it is quite wrong for her to say that we should have an open door immigration policy, welcoming more and more people into her community and others, without meeting the demands that come with that in terms of housing and infrastructure.
I am uncomfortable with net migration at current levels, as I believe are most of my constituents. I understand what the Government are doing about one-year taught masters; they seem to be about 95% of this issue. That absolutely makes sense. However, I have some concerns that some universities might try to game the system and re-label one-year taught masters as one-year research masters. I understand why PhDs are treated differently, but will the Minister assure me that that will not happen and we will clamp down on that? Will he also comment on the two-year period I believe that students get after they graduate, where they can stay here even if they do not necessarily have a job?
We believe the changes we are setting out today will make a marked impact on net migration. We will, obviously, monitor them very closely for some of the unintended consequences my hon. Friend refers to. The consultation we will do with universities and the broader sector will help us to refine the policy, should that be necessary.
There is no one single intervention that will solve this challenge, but this is a significant intervention that will make a material difference to net migration. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the overwhelming majority of international students historically have left at the end of their studies, or shortly thereafter. It is possible that the system that has evolved since 2019 will see different trends. In 2020, only 7,400 non-EU students stayed on post study and those numbers will be dramatically higher in the years ahead. It may be that the mix of individuals, the countries they come from and the fact that they are bringing dependants with them in many cases, will lead to a far higher number of individuals staying on post study, but I do not think we will see those trends clearly enough this year. We may see them in years to come.
Many of my constituents continue to be deeply concerned about the levels of net migration, not just over the last few years but over the last few decades. They, along with myself, will welcome the measures outlined by the Minister today. Is he able to update the House on any measures his Department is taking to tackle bogus college placements from students who sometimes come to this country only to disappear into thin air?
Alongside the package of measures today, we are, as I said earlier, taking further targeted enforcement activity against unscrupulous education agents who are selling entry to the United Kingdom, rather than education. We will also work closely with universities and the Department for Education to improve communication, to universities and their affiliates, of the immigration rules, so we can clamp down on the kind of poor practices my hon. Friend describes.
The statement is right to celebrate the huge growth in international student numbers—I assume that is the bit the Department for Education and the Treasury insisted should go in—but within that there is a welcome diversification in that growth away from overdependence on China. That was a deliberate part of the international education strategy. The Minister talks about unintended consequences, but it was entirely predictable that those coming from other countries for masters courses would come from a different demographic from Chinese students, that they would have families and that, like us, they would not want to separated from them. Our competitors welcome students with families, so there is a real risk that a blanket ban on dependants will undermine the Government’s own international education strategy. The statement commits to consulting with universities in developing the approach, so will the Minister confirm there will be no blanket ban on dependants of postgraduate taught students until that consultation has taken place?
We will implement the policy we set out yesterday, but concurrently we will launch the consultation with universities and, if we need to refine the policy as a result of that, we will do so. To the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I do not think there is any reason why a Chinese student would be less likely to bring dependants with them to the United Kingdom than a Nigerian, a Vietnamese or a Bangladeshi. I do not follow his logic there at all. We want an entirely non-discriminatory approach and that is what we have said to our international counterparts this week. That has always been our approach to this. We welcome international students from any part of the world.
The vast majority of international students access their courses in the north of England through Manchester airport in my constituency. Will the Minister agree to an economic impact assessment on how the policy will impact jobs in my constituency and route development, and the cost to the wider northern economy?
I was pleased to be at Manchester airport on Friday, meeting my Border Force officials and seeing the expansion currently under way. I do not foresee any serious loss of revenue for an airport such as Manchester. The number of international students coming to the UK has risen very significantly in recent years. To the extent that that provides income to airports, they will have benefited from our existing policy and I expect them to benefit in future.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, even if only to expose that we could not put a cigarette paper between Labour and Tory policies on this issue. Scotland has a track record of welcoming international students to our internationally recognised universities. Scotland wants and needs the benefits that they bring. This Government’s continuous refusal to devolve immigration powers to the Scottish Government shows their contempt for Scotland. Why do they not understand and recognise that things are different there? Continual refusal to do what Scotland needs and wants will come down heavy on them in the next election.
At the risk of repeating myself, there is no material difference between unemployment or economic inactivity in Scotland and in the rest of the UK—the hon. Lady is incorrect in that regard. The UK benefits enormously from a single immigration policy and offer to international students in universities in all parts of the world.
In Northern Ireland, our universities are very dependent on international students, particularly in the light of the budget crisis we are facing. Employers cannot access labour without migration, which I am sure is the same for the rest of the UK. Rather than being a burden, our public services depend upon migrants for their basic functioning. Why are the Government so insistent on acting against the core interests of our public services, the economy and our local universities?
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is this Government who established the international education strategy that led to 600,000 international students coming to the UK every year. Indeed, that number is likely to grow next year. With respect to public services, we created the health and social care visa, which last year led to 76,000 applications. Their dependants were able to join them. That was 11% of all the visas issued to individuals wishing to come to the United Kingdom. We are doing everything we can to support public services, but we must address the fact that very high levels of net migration place intolerable pressure on housing, public services and integration.
Our schools are in the midst of such a chronic teacher recruitment and retention crisis that the Department for Education currently offers £10,000 relocation payments to overseas applicants to come and train as language and physics teachers in the UK, on postgraduate taught courses. If they cannot bring their families, they will not want to settle here and use the training that we have provided in our schools, where they are desperately needed. Why are the Government cutting off their nose to spite their own face?
I said that we take a pragmatic approach to this issue. We are balancing our strong desire to bring down net migration with the needs of the economy. That is why we have taken the approach of standing behind the 600,000 target for international students, but making this important tweak to ensure that it is not abused.
Net migration figures also include the number people who leave this country. The Minister’s hard Brexit has made it more difficult for students and others to travel overseas, and that is having an impact on net migration figures. Meanwhile, Glasgow North thrives culturally, socially and economically to the tune of £225.8 million thanks to our lively and diverse international student community. Why does the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spend millions of pounds on overseas campaigns that say that Britain is great, when the message coming from the Home Office is that Britain is closed?
I wonder what world the hon. Gentleman lives in if he thinks that net migration of half a million is too little and we should encourage more. Net migration levels in this country are very high. We want to bring those down, which is why we are taking measures such as this.
The University of Cumbria and Lancaster University are hugely successful institutions, and we are proud of them. They are important to our economy and are successful exporters. What is their export? High-quality education delivered in the United Kingdom. Why are the Government seeking to stifle our great exporters’ ability to export? Why have they become suddenly anti-free market? Will the Minister recognise that, by earning money through international students, British universities can cross-subsidise services and places for British students? British students will be the ones who pay the price.
As I said in answer to an earlier question, the economic benefit of international students is clear. We welcome that, but we do not want British universities to become totally reliant on income from international students. Just a few years ago, that accounted for 5% of their income; last year it was 18%, and without measures such as this, no doubt it would continue to rise. To the hon. Gentleman’s broader point, of course we want to support universities such as his to thrive and prosper and to market themselves internationally, but the business of universities is education, not immigration.
I thank the Minister for his answers. I welcome the announcement as it shows considerable effort in committing to the Government pledge to crack down on net migration. However, what assessment has the Minister made of the number of children who will be left behind while their parents come to the UK to study for a better life, and cannot bring their little ones with them on their journey and, crucially, maintain family life, which is really important?
That is one of the reasons we have said that those coming here for longer-term research courses such as PhDs can continue to bring their dependants with them. If one were coming to the UK for a sustained period, it would be right for them to relocate in a more substantial way. But if individuals are making a choice to come here for a one-year masters course, it is perfectly appropriate for the UK to say that that is their decision and they should not bring their dependants with them.