Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 25th November 2008.

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Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 8:15 pm, 25th November 2008

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for again bringing this issue before the House. I wish to speak in the same spirit as the noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Williams, particularly with respect to how this legislation affects higher education. The point has already been made that by placing sponsored researchers in tier 5, there will be a requirement to find a third body to sponsor them. I accept that this can be done in certain cases—the British Council might play a role—but for the majority of cases it is, frankly, not at all practical. It creates a major problem for our universities because these regulations come into effect in a few days' time and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, there are at present no arrangements in place by which they can see their way to reproducing the number of sponsored researchers that we currently have. One way of doing it would be to extend tier 2 to include that group of people.

Today there were discussions on this issue in Downing Street. I hope that we are on the way to reaching a benign resolution of this problem because one is certainly required. We are talking about several thousand talented people in our university system, whose work this country cannot afford to lose. Cambridge University alone has 200 sponsored researchers. The measure affects dozens of people in my university, Queen's University, Belfast. Cambridge is also concerned that the more restrictive arrangements for academic visitors will negatively affect the work of the Isaac Newton Institute, a world-class centre for mathematics. This is not simply a Cambridge issue. Today I talked to my own vice-chancellor in Belfast, who said that throughout the world of higher education there is alarm about the implications of these new proposals.

As other noble Lords have said, there is no question about the quality of the work carried out by sponsored researchers in our universities, which is frequently of economic benefit to this country and to the world more generally. I illustrate this with what I hope is a suggestive and pertinent example. The Foreign Secretary's Written Statement of 13 March announced, in effect, that there would be no further FCO scholarships for PhD work from the developed Commonwealth countries. This aroused controversy in a debate last week. It is interesting to note the reason given by the Foreign Secretary in the Statement; namely, the desire to shift £10 million towards engaging with China on matters such as climate change and economic development.

There is every reason to respect the way in which the Foreign Secretary has tried to focus keenly on China, and it is a realistic aspect of current British foreign policy; therefore, the idea is to transfer £10 million in favour of this new engagement. However, we should look, as I did today, at Cambridge University's list of sponsored researchers and what they are doing. At the very top of the list is the work of a Chinese scientist who specialises in electric power, economy and management, and works on such relevant questions as long distance interconnectors for wind farms and hydro stations. That is precisely the area in which we are supposed to be spending money, or shifting resources, in order to have a dialogue, but in this particular case it is not clear what the arrangements might be to keep this person in the country or to bring such people back into the country. There does not seem to be any particular rationale for this set of policies other than to create the maximum possible infuriation in the higher education sector, which has been achieved more or less perfectly.

I hope that the Minister, who has an academic hat as a chancellor of one of our universities, can bring himself to feel sympathy for the genuine plight of these sponsored researchers and for this whole project and what it means for our economy. I suspect that we are dealing with the unintentional side effect of very complex new regulations, which would create genuine problems for any Government, but we cannot afford to take any steps which casually damage the research competitiveness of our universities.