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Immigration: Students — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 2:23 pm on 25th February 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat 2:23 pm, 25th February 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to removing international students from the net migration figures by including them as non-immigrant admissions, as is done in the United States.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in introducing this short debate I declare two interests: I am an honorary fellow of Birkbeck College and I am the treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group. I should also say that I am looking forward enormously to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, whose very distinguished record in science, technology and universities precedes her.

Net migration figures into the United Kingdom quite rightly reflect the flow of all those who come into the United Kingdom within a certain period of time—usually a year—minus the flow of those who leave. The Office for National Statistics, which is responsible for compiling these figures, uses the UN definition of “migrant”, which includes all people who move into the country for a period of 12 months or more, regardless of the purpose or permanence of their stay. On that basis, all students coming to study in the UK for more than one year are counted as immigrants. Likewise, all those who leave at the end of their studies are counted as emigrants.

International students are of very considerable benefit to the United Kingdom. They pay fees for their university tuition and accommodation, and UUK reckons that, together with off-campus spending, each student brings something like £26,000 a year to the United Kingdom economy. Indeed, the Government reckon that export earnings from overseas students amount to currently something like £25 billion, and the Autumn Statement suggested an ambition that this should grow by 20% to £30 billion by 2020.

There are also longer-term benefits. For example, a recent study from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that more than 80% of the students who had studied here retained personal and professional links and had an increased appreciation for, and trust of, the United Kingdom. In other words, that soft power is very important as well as the actual money that they bring in. For all these reasons, it is very much to the UK’s advantage to encourage as many international students as possible to come to this country.

Problems, however, arise on two scores. First, in so far as the number of students coming to this country from overseas is increasing, we would expect that over that period more would come in than would leave, and that this would be reflected as a rise in net migration. Indeed, given the 20% increase in non-EU students projected in the Autumn Statement, the estimates written into the detailed documents accompanying the Statement projected an increase of 7% in student numbers for 2016-17 and 2017-18. This would amount to an extra 20,000 students each year, adding potentially an extra 40,000 to the net migration figures over these two years.

This, in itself, would not matter, if the Government had not at the same time set themselves a target for reducing net migration to below 100,000 from its current total of more than 300,000. In pursuit of this target, the Government have been tightening up the regulations on student visas, and many universities are complaining that, far from increasing, the number of new entrants is actually falling. Indeed, according to the latest figures, there has been a drop of 3% in new entrants for courses and, in particular, the number of students from west Africa and the Indian subcontinent is down.

The universities are particularly unhappy with the regime of “credibility interviews” instituted by the Home Office since 2012, whereby students, having applied for and received their certificate of acceptance by the universities, and then having to apply for a visa, are further interviewed by Home Office officials, often by Skype, to assess whether they are bona fide students. This is far from a small, random sample; in 2014, 125,000 credibility interviews took place and the total number of entrants was 174,000. There was also a sizeable increase in the number of visa refusals.

Research by the UK Council for International Student Affairs reveals that Home Office officials are making judgments well beyond the agreed terms of such interviews, often countering the university’s own assessment of academic potential on a seemingly random and inconsistent basis. But since those who conduct the interviews are not required to keep records of their reasons for turning down a visa, there is, at present, no recourse on these judgements. The overall result, far from encouraging overseas applicants to apply to our universities, drives them into the arms of our competitors, the USA, Canada and Australia, all of which, like the UK, are seeking to increase applicants from abroad.

On the face of it, there are two wholly incompatible strands of government policy: on the one hand seeking to increase overseas student numbers and, on the other, seeking all possible ways to cut net migration numbers. Universities are keen to expand the intake of students from non-EU countries—they bring, as I have said, substantial income both to the university and to local business, and many taught graduate programmes are dependent on recruiting overseas students. But inevitably, expansion in overseas student numbers increases net migration and results in tighter and tighter controls over the issuing of student visas, with the UK appearing more and more unwelcoming to overseas students. The one policy totally contradicts the other.

Others besides me have suggested treating students as temporary migrants and separating them from the net migration figures. The Government have resisted that on three grounds. In the first place, the ONS is obliged to use the UN definition of migrant. Secondly, students, even if temporary migrants, use public services and in this sense are in no way different from other migrants. Thirdly, the International Passenger Survey suggests that many students do not return when their visas expire and are therefore not temporary migrants.

I will return to the first of those, the UN definition, in a moment, but I will deal briefly with the other two issues. Most students are young people who make relatively little demand on public services and are in any case now required to pay an NHS surcharge. As we saw earlier, far from being a burden, they contribute substantially to the UK economy and in the long run very substantially.

In relation to the IPS, there is much controversy over its validity. There are good figures because of visas and university registrations for new entrants, but although attempts are being made to collate exit records, these are as yet in their infancy, which is why reliance has to be placed on the IPS. Even the Oxford-based Migration Observatory concluded that the statistics were unreliable and that the temporariness of international students remains uncertain.

That brings me to my final point—the UN definition of migrant. I suggest that the answer is to copy the Americans. The US gets over the problem by issuing two different sets of statistics on net immigration. The first, issued by the US Census Bureau uses the same UN definition of migrant and, like the UK ONS, measures overall flows of people, including students, in and out of the country on an annual basis. The second set of statistics, produced for the Department of Homeland Security, makes the distinction between permanent immigrants and those classed as non-immigrant admissions, which includes students alongside tourists, business travellers and those involved in cultural exchanges. Canada and Australia make a similar distinction. It seems such a simple solution to a problem that has caused the Government a good deal of grief.

I end by posing two questions to the Minister. Why cannot this country be more pragmatic like the Americans and use two sets of statistics, thereby complying with the UN requirements in measuring overall migration flows, but having a sensible set of statistics on which to base their net immigration targets? Secondly, why does the Home Office think it necessary to best-guess university admissions systems and run such a heavy-handed programme of credibility interviews? Random sampling is one thing; interviewing and often in the process upsetting and putting off two-thirds of potential entrants is another. Is this really necessary?

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 2:33 pm, 25th February 2016

I thank the noble Baroness for giving us the chance once again to debate this rather vexed issue. I have listened carefully to what she said and I understand the force of her arguments, but I am afraid for me they are trumped by other and wider considerations. I therefore think that the Government should resist calls to change the categorisation at this time. I will explain why.

In the year ending in March 2015, 216,000 student visas were issued—roughly the same number as in the prior year. But also in that year, 73,000 applications to extend the student visa were made and granted. One-third of the total of students asked for an extension: some to continue to study, some to work and some for family reasons. There lies my concern. This could be the beginning of a process whereby individuals who have come here as students slowly morph into becoming members of the settled population of the country.

The extent of this leakage is hotly disputed, and indeed, the excellent briefing pack from the Library for the debate today contains some important figures. Perhaps my noble friend can update us in his reply on the Government’s latest estimates of what this leakage is. Whatever the figure, an integral part of this morphing and transition is that the person becomes an immigrant, not a student, and should therefore be classified as such.

Noble Lords will have heard me before express my concern at the very rapid rate of increase in the population of this country and the implications for the entire settled population. Our population is now growing by 1,153 people per day, and of that about half comes from immigration. This is a small and increasingly crowded island. England is now more densely populated than the Netherlands. That is also why, with respect to the noble Baroness, I must say that using the example of the United States, with its massive geographical extent, is not a fair one in a debate such as this.

That takes me to my final point and a question for my noble friend. What gives this debate its edge is that we still have inadequate control over our borders. We cannot ensure that everybody who is here is entitled to be here. Though launched in 2003, the e-Borders system appears some way from completion. I understand that in the past four years, between 2011 and 2015, my noble friend’s department spent nearly £90 million on improving systems that the e-Borders system would have replaced, and information about travellers is still being processed on two systems that do not share data or analysis effectively. An update from my noble friend on the e-Borders progress would be much appreciated.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour 2:36 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, on once again championing the interests of higher education in this country. Universities and academic bodies appreciate her dedication and expertise; I speak as the president of Birkbeck in saying as much. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, on such an important topic.

This subject of international students being moved from immigration figures keeps on coming up. We have had debates, Written Questions and Oral Questions. Why has there been so little movement from the Government on this? There seems to be something of a tabloid-driven policy here. Statistics from the International Passenger Survey show a gap between the numbers of immigrants arriving and emigrants returning. The number hovers around 93,000 a year.

What a fine UK headline that would make: bogus student immigrants come to stay. We do not want that—do we?

But such fears need to be faced. We need further data and an examination of who these overstayers are. Will the Government consider a post-study work visa? Statistics in this area are limited and the methodology crude. George Osborne told the Treasury Select Committee as much. There seems to be a tension, in that the Home Office planned to increase the amount of cash in the bank that foreign postgraduates must have before they are allowed into this country and insist that they must past tougher language tests, but reports tell me that George Osborne shot down those suggestions. He clearly has a more welcoming agenda.

Will the Government now please give some nuanced thinking as to how to turn what is a ham-fisted ruling into a success story in its own right? At this very moment, the country could use an upbeat immigration story and this could be it. Students come here bringing their wealth and skills, our universities offer them levels of study that they cannot find anywhere else and some of them, just some of them, overstay. For the most part, the vast majority of those returning home have a good story to tell of our academic standards, our outstanding university life and the nature of life in this country in general. That is a huge plus in the soft power that we exercise around the world. That success story needs to be celebrated. Can we have some plausible lateral thinking from this Government to make it so?

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat 2:39 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Sharp on instituting this debate and on her powerfully argued opening speech. I declare an interest as a member of the UCL Council. Like my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, I look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown.

The Minister knows that from these Benches we have consistently pursued issues relating to overseas students for several years now. However, the Home Office seems to be oblivious to the overwhelming arguments for excluding students from the net migration figures. Higher education is one of the most important and successful sectors for the UK, contributing £11 billion in overseas earnings, added to which are the continuing personal and professional links that are created—the soft power referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. The Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, to their credit, now seem to be at odds with the Home Secretary on this issue. No wonder, because to adopt policies which reduce overseas student numbers is economic madness.

The International Passenger Survey figures are estimates. It is clear that there is no reliable measurement of net migration at all, so how can there be reliable evidence of abuse and overstaying, as alleged? Frankly, when is the Home Office going to be able to produce decent figures for net migration?

In Oral Questions last December I raised the issue of the credibility test introduced in 2013, which has led to so many visa refusals for students from countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan, to which my noble friend referred. But it appears that the Home Office does not even collect statistics on the reasons for visa removal. The Minister tried to reassure me in his response, but there is clear evidence of the over-zealous application by the Home Office of the visa rules on overseas students which is potentially chilling, both in respect of applications and expiry. Even completely blameless students are now being improperly detained. I cite the arrest of Paul Hamilton, an American postdoctoral student, as a “flight risk” and the US doctoral student, Sabine Parrish, who was detained for eight hours on no grounds whatever. Will the Minister condemn these abuses? As the

Times Higher Education says:

“This game makes no economic or educational sense, and will drive international applicants into the arms of US, Canadian and Australian universities”.

The number of overseas students coming here is understandably beginning to stall, in contrast to the growth in competitor countries. Our clear aim must now be to restore our attractiveness as a destination for overseas students. Along with putting other policies into place, we should, as so many have consistently called for, including my noble friend, exclude these students from the net migration figures.

Photo of Baroness Brown of Cambridge Baroness Brown of Cambridge Crossbench 2:42 pm, 25th February 2016

(Maiden) My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to join your Lordships’ House. I am looking forward to the opportunity to contribute in areas where I have expertise: engineering, universities, innovation and climate change. I am very grateful to all the staff here, especially of course the Doorkeepers and the police, as well as to all noble Lords for being both welcoming, as is evidenced here today, and tolerant. I thank my supporters, the noble Lords, Lord Baker of Dorking and Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, and my mentor, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I must declare an interest, in that I am the vice-chancellor of Aston University in Birmingham.

We have heard from other noble Lords how international students contribute to the UK in many ways. Overseas student fees subsidise education for home students. At Aston, 18% of my student population is from overseas, providing more than 30% of my fee income. Overseas students are critical to maintaining engineering provision in UK universities. Engineering UK reports that 25% to 40% of undergraduates on engineering courses are from overseas. At Aston, half our overseas students are on science, engineering and maths courses.

The inclusion of overseas students in net migration figures—that is, within a population we are seeking to reduce—while simultaneously targeting an increase in their numbers, is illogical. It affects the behaviour of our agencies, as we have heard, and contributes to the feeling that these students are less welcome in the UK than they would be in the USA, Australia, Canada or New Zealand.

While UK employment levels have been much less sensitive to the recent recession than those of our competitors, UK productivity is falling behind. The productivity deficit is particularly associated with small and medium-sized enterprises. That is critical because SMEs account for 60% of UK jobs. Research published last week by the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick and Aston business schools highlights the need for innovation and access to global markets in order to improve SME productivity. But there is clearly a challenge in recruiting the right people to enable this. The CBI

Inspiring Growth report last year highlighted that while 40% of employers prefer graduates with technical skills, the proportion having problems recruiting scientists and engineers has more than doubled in the past two years.

I ask the Minister that the Government consider not only taking overseas students out of the net migration figures, but make it easier for companies, in particular SMEs, to recruit overseas graduates from UK universities by, for example, reducing or removing the minimum starting salary for a tier 2 visa, a restriction that does not exist in the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Data for the West Midlands suggest that average graduate starting salaries are below the minimum figure of £20,800 required for tier 2 visas, and starting salaries that are affordable for SMEs and spin-outs are often lower still. Allowing ambitious SMEs in our regions easier access to an affordable international talent pool should be part of our regional growth strategy, supporting business innovation, global reach and the health of our great universities.

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 2:46 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, on her excellent maiden speech. I have known her for almost a decade, since I was the founder of the UK-India Business Council. Now she is the vice-chancellor of Aston University in Birmingham and I am the Chancellor of the University of Birmingham; we are neighbours. She has taken her title as Cambridge because she is a staunch alumna of Murray Edwards College, known in our day as New Hall, which is one of only three women-only colleges remaining in Cambridge. Her career in the field of engineering is outstanding—from working at Rolls-Royce to heading the engineering faculty at Imperial College in London, to her famous King review in 2008 on carbon emissions from road transport. Not content with being a world-renowned expert in the field of engineering and science, with awards too numerous for me to list, she is also married to Dr Colin Brown, the engineering director at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. We look forward very much to her contributions in the years to come.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi all studied at UK universities. They are the finest universities on this planet along with those of the United States of America, and yet the Government continue to classify international students as immigrants when calculating the net immigration figures, as well as having a target to reduce net immigration to fewer than 100,000. Then, hypocritically, the Government say that there are no limits to international students. Logically, there is no way the Government will meet their targets unless they reduce international student numbers. They have done the right thing in closing down bogus colleges and we all agree with that, but now their policies are damaging genuine international students at our world-class universities. I see this every day in my role as president of UKCISA.

At the University of Birmingham, 20% of our student body is made up of international students and 33% of our academic staff are from overseas. BIS itself states that international students bring in more than £13 billion a year in overseas earnings, and yet, in the words of Professor Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge,

“the potential economic gains for the UK for recruiting more overseas students are being sacrificed at the altar of political expediency”.

He went on to say that said it is “ludicrous” to include overseas students in UK immigration targets. Our competitor countries do not categorise international students as immigrants. In the US they are included as non-immigration admissions, while in Australia they are reported as net temporary arrivals. In Canada they are placed in the temporary resident category. I ask the Minister this: why can we not do the same? In fact, the Prime Minister himself has said to me that he would be open to this idea.

The Government are unnecessarily creating a rod for their own back. Furthermore, our competitor countries have ambitious targets to grow international student numbers, accompanied by government action to help them do so. For example, Canada wants to double its number of international students to 450,000 by 2020. In 2014-15 the number of Indian students increased by 32% in the United States, while the number of Indian students coming to the UK has fallen drastically. Does the Minister agree that we should have specific targets to increase the number of international students?

As we have heard, removing our post-study work visa route has also been hugely damaging. An NUS survey found that 51% of students think that the Government are not welcoming towards international students. Universities UK research shows that 22% of the British public considers overseas students not to be immigrants, yet the Government keep relying on international passenger survey data, which are completely unreliable. I have repeatedly said that the Government need to reintroduce exit checks at our borders and that all passports, EU and non-EU, need to be scanned in and out of the country. Then, we would have proper control of our borders and we would know the international students coming in and going out.

This year I was appointed chair of the advisory board at Cambridge Judge Business School. Christoph Loch, our director, said that the Government’s current policies,

“not only are ineffective … but outright hostile and unfair toward a population of highly talented people who collectively do have an influence on the reputation of the UK in the world”.

The Government keep talking about the United Nations’ definition of migrants but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said—I thank her for the debate—no one is suggesting that the UK should stop reporting to the UN or recording student migrant numbers. There is no reason why the UN definition should be used for the particular domestic policy objective of the net migration target. UUK, the Russell group, London First and the NUS all independently agree with what I have said. International students are not only one of our biggest export earners, but one of the strongest elements of our soft power.

The Government have sent a strong message about their intention to keep out migrants who will bring no value to the UK, but they must be equally clear that the UK still wants to attract economically valuable groups, such as genuine international students. Removing this group from the net migration target would send a clear international message that the UK is open to all the amazing benefits that international students provide to our country and to British universities, which are the jewel in our crown.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative 2:51 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, on securing this timely and important debate. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, on her excellent maiden speech. I note that her PhD was on fracture mechanisms in embrittled alloy steels. I am sure we all agree that her performance was copper-bottomed and I look forward to her contributions to further debates in the House.

I declare an interest as deputy chancellor of BPP University. We attract thousands of international students each year, 96% of whom attain employment within six months of completing their studies. Some stay; some return home. Either way, Britain benefits.

The leaders of Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Botswana, Bahrain—I could go on. Those are just the As and the Bs of world leaders who have studied as international students in the United Kingdom—55 at last count. That is a good enough reason to celebrate international students coming to UK institutions.

On top of that, they bring billions for British business. We just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, the king of Cobra Beer. I ask my noble friend the Minister: can he imagine a curry without Cobra? Unimaginable, yet a reality had the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, not come to this country as an international student.

To turn to the data, the IPS statistics are mainly meaningless. That 90,000 is a nonsense number. We can know nothing from those statistics. If we are going to argue on the numbers, we need to have decent data on which to base this debate. I ask my noble friend the Minister: if the system is working and we are open for business, how is it that in the last year we have had a 10% fall in students from India coming to Britain and an 8% fall in students from Nigeria, while Canada has had an 11% increase in international students, the United States 10% and Australia 8%? If we do not get this right, the rest of the world will make a better offer and those international students will go somewhere else.

If we are to have a northern powerhouse, we need international students. If we are to revive our railways, we need international students. If we are to have fully enriched artistic, cultural leisure pursuits in this nation, international students are critical. In short, we need to get the message out there: there is good migration and there is less good migration.

In conclusion, we need to end this visa vapidity. We need counsels of prudence, not of prevention, and we need to warmly welcome the brightest and the best to come and study in Britain.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 2:54 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, this is far from the first time that the House has debated the Government’s policy of treating overseas students as economic migrants. Nevertheless, it is good that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has brought the matter up again, and even better that my noble friend Lady Brown has joined the ranks of those who have been breaking their teeth on the Government’s policy for as long as I can remember. This issue is one of the black swans of today’s policy agenda—a policy without much support even in the Cabinet and none at all outside it. It is one with no serious justification.

I have five questions to which I would like the Minister to try to find a reply. First, does the system help the Government to reach their target of reducing overall migration to the tens of thousands? Certainly not. Since there are 180,000-plus students coming in and the number is tending to rise, it makes that target impossible to achieve.

Secondly, does it assist the Government’s policy of expanding the higher education sector’s contribution to our invisible exports, which are substantial, by attracting the brightest and the best? Certainly not, again. It discourages them. The most recent 2014-15 figures are pretty sobering, since we are losing market share to all our main competitors.

Thirdly, are students properly regarded as economic migrants? The answer to that, too, must be negative. They pay fees—often higher fees than our own students—generate employment and pump resources into towns and cities where they study, while making disproportionately small demands on the National Health Service and other benefits.

Fourthly, are we compelled to classify them in this way? No, we are not. The UN classification, to which the Home Office clings like a drowning man to the smallest of planks, is not legally binding. We already have separate statistics for students. We can submit them as the United States does and stop treating them as economic migrants.

Fifthly, does the student issue drive the general concern, which certainly does exist, about immigration? There is not the slightest evidence that it does. If you asked most people whether they regard students as economic migrants, they would look at you in great puzzlement and think that it was a pretty silly question, particularly now that the Government have clamped down on dodgy language schools.

If the Government cannot provide answers to those questions, could they please just change the policy?

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:57 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for securing this question for short debate. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, on an excellent maiden speech. She brings a wealth of experience from the higher education, engineering and science fields. I hope that this is the first of very many contributions she will make to your Lordships’ House.

It is not possible in the short time that I have to do this subject justice. I find myself agreeing with almost all the remarks made by noble Lords in this debate. The UK attracts a large number of international students coming to study here for a year or more. We have some of the best universities in the world, offering fantastic courses, leading to highly sought-after qualifications. We are, though, in a very competitive marketplace and it is the duty of the Government to do everything in their power to make the UK an even more attractive destination for international students.

I am not asking the Government to change how the net migration figures are reported as this is an internationally recognised definition, but they can do more. Looking at the net migration target that they have set themselves is one example. The Government have created a conflict for themselves entirely of their own making—it does not have to be there—by wanting to boost international student numbers while reducing their net migration targets. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, said, that is wholly incompatible. I also agree with her suggestion that we should consider adopting the US system of recording these data.

The Government’s ambition for growth in this sector is not as ambitious as that of our competitors. Our visa system is more restrictive and the UK is losing out needlessly. Shortly, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, will tell us that there is no cap on the number of bona fide international students coming to study in the UK, but the fact is that our numbers have been relatively stagnant in recent years compared to our competitors, which have seen significant growth. The United States has seen an increase of 10% and Australia 8.9% in international student numbers, in comparison to growth of 0.6% in the UK over the same period.

We need to make our system for getting international students into the UK more welcoming and streamlined like our competitors, particularly the United States of America, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, said. People need to feel more welcome. The fall by 50% in the number of Indian students coming to study in the UK is of particular concern. Surveys have shown that the general public do not perceive international students as immigrants, and they bring a significant boost to our economy measured in billions of pounds. International students who study here and have a good experience return home with a very favourable view of the UK. That is of enormous benefit to us, as my noble friend Lady Bakewell said. She rightly pointed how important that is in terms of our soft power influence in the world.

My time is nearly up so I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for enabling us to have this debate. I hope that we can return to the subject very soon as we need to keep impressing upon the Government that it is in our country’s interest that it acts on this sooner rather than later.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department 3:00 pm, 25th February 2016

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for securing this debate. Although we are very familiar with our respective positions as we have debated this issue so often, I suggest that there is a great deal more common ground than may at first appear. Of course, we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for the way she introduced the debate. I listened carefully as she set out in precise terms how the current system works and the terms, methodologies and calculations used, which match the Government’s exactly, as one would expect from a distinguished academic. There is common ground on the analysis to that extent. However, there may be divergence over some of the conclusions. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, made an outstanding contribution to the debate in her maiden speech. More importantly, given her distinguished background in academia, particularly in science, technology and engineering, she brings an immensely valuable perspective to your Lordships’ House. We very much look forward to her further contributions.

Another area on which we can agree is that Britain is blessed with some of the greatest universities in the world. Any table will show that we have perhaps four out of 10 or six out of 20 of the top universities in the world. The UK is widely admired and respected in that field. It is not by accident therefore that we are the second largest attractor of foreign students in the world. That is a very important point for us to remember.

Nor is there any disagreement over the fact that the Government have set out in their own financial strategy that we want to see the number of students continue to increase, as was said. We have set targets for the contributions we want to see universities make because this is a great export earner. As a number of noble Lords said, the soft power that this process brings to this country is immensely valuable as we move forward. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, said, there is no doubt that we want to continue to attract the brightest and the best. That is common ground. We want to see an increase in foreign students—we are proud of them and we recognise their value—so where is the point of difference? I shall try distil that down to a question about whether the means by which we calculate the number of students coming into this country and those leaving this country acts as a deterrent to people thinking of coming to study here.

As regards the point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, I think there is a problem. When you look at the overall statistics, there is some encouraging news. The number of overseas students coming to Russell group universities is up by 39% since 2010. However, when you break down the figures and start looking at them country by country, you see differences. You see numbers from China increasing but India’s economy is also growing strongly now and yet we see a different pattern there. We have looked at differences in the way British universities welcome these students who are effectively investing in this country, and how the latter perceive that welcome. Having discussed the matter with Jo Johnson, our Universities Minister, James Brokenshire went to India just last week with the specific purpose of busting some of the myths that surround the welcome that awaits genuine students who have the relevant qualifications and have been offered places at our world-class universities. There is a great deal to do in that regard. We need to get across the message that there is no limit on the number of students who can come to genuine universities here and that there is no limit on the number of people who can switch from tier 4 visas to tier 2 graduate programmes, particularly in the types of disciplines to which the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, referred. The level of the salary is, of course, something that we need to examine. If we want to attract the brightest and the best, then, of course, £20,800 as a starting salary is about NVQ level 3 or 4, or about A-level.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister accept that that is above the average graduate salary in places such as the north of England?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department

That may be so. I would have to look into that point in relation to the north of England, and I am happy to do so. However, the point is that there is no limit on the number of graduate opportunities available. We have special programmes for PhD students and for post-doctoral study. Therefore, we need to get that message out into the wider world much more effectively that Britain welcomes these students and that a range of opportunities exists for students, post-study, to continue to work and gain experience. They can continue on tier 5 with approved internships and training programmes. Twenty-eight thousand organisations have approval to sponsor tier 2 graduate employment opportunities. There is also the PhD entrepreneur route on tier 1. There is a wealth of opportunities for these students.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked five very pertinent questions and then answered them, albeit not entirely to the Government’s satisfaction. We recognise that our country is experiencing growing pressures from inward migration and its effect on the fabric of society. As a result, we need to take steps to bring net migration down. Of course, you cannot do that simply by changing the figures. It would be very easy to change the figures and, by waving a magic wand, halve net migration. That would be very comfortable but it would not be true. Often people come to this country to study and then stay on. That is why there is a discrepancy between the figure of 117,000 coming in and 40,000 leaving. We need to understand better why we have the 77,000 discrepancy and we need to better understand the data.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, asked for an update on e-borders. Exit checks, which were introduced last year, will give us a better picture of where those people are going. We will publish an update report in May on the progress of e-borders and the exit checks. That will give us greater confidence in this regard.

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench

My Lords, we know that e-borders are not reliable. We have a migration problem with the EU as well. Why do we not institute scanning of all passports—EU and non-EU—at our borders? Then we will have total control. It is easy technology and is available right now.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department

We will continue to look at these things. The exit checks are the first step to something we hope will help us get a better handle on flows in and out of the country.

I am aware that there is a great deal of expertise in the House, particularly in the higher education sector. We keep debating the numbers, but I urge noble Lords to think that our message should be to sell the incredible opportunities people have when they come to study in some of the greatest universities in the world. As graduates, they will then have the opportunity to work in some of the greatest companies in world. That is a fantastic offer that we can all come together to sell.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat

I apologise for interrupting the Minister again, but he has time to answer a couple of questions. The two cases I mentioned were quite egregious, because neither postgraduate student had breached any visa rules. That gives Britain an enormously bad name among that community.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department

I am very happy to look into those two cases for the noble Lord to ensure we get this right. The message has to be clear, and we have to recognise that we have a duty to welcome people coming in to contribute to our economy and to show them the appropriate respect.

I am happy, should the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, think it an offer worth accepting, to convene a meeting of interested peers and colleagues with our people from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who have ownership of the universities sector and the tier 2 and tier 4 issues, along with people from the Home Office and immigration enforcement, to discuss how we can tackle these problems and the reasons we are not getting the right message out. We can work together to ensure that our fantastic offer on the world stage is communicated loud and clear: that people from around the world with genuine qualifications and places at great British universities are very welcome and that we are very grateful to them; that, post-study, they will have immense opportunities in this country; and that we would like them to stay and contribute, if they are qualified to do so.

Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench

We have all asked for one thing. We are all great ambassadors for British universities—we are their greatest fans—and we will continue to be, but we are asking for one thing. The Prime Minister has said he is open to the idea, and I am sure the Chancellor would be. We are asking the Government to categorise international students separately, in the way that, as we have shown, the USA, Canada and Australia do. That one move would send out a message. The Minister talked about perception. It would remove that perception once and for all. Why can the Government not do it?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department

The noble Lord, who knows this area inside out, knows that we looked at that very carefully. It is true that the United States separates that category out, but when it calculates net migration, it adds it back in. The United States behaves differently because it does not have a net migration target. We do, and therefore we have chosen to include students in the numbers.

Photo of Baroness Sharp of Guildford Baroness Sharp of Guildford Liberal Democrat

Would the noble Lord not consider publishing the two statistics side by side, as the Americans do? We could have the net migration figures, but let us also have the figures excluding the students, so that the population can judge for themselves whether the targets have been met.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department

Given the gap in the numbers, which we do not yet fully understand, the Government are not comfortable enough to take the heat from our heels—as it were—on the immigration statistics by providing a potentially sharp change in the net migration numbers. It might give us a degree of comfort that is not borne out in reality. The better our data and intelligence, the better able we will be to say to universities, “Listen, your responsibility is not just to attract people here, to ensure they are qualified to come and to give them a great education, but to ensure that, when their time is up and their visa is expired, they go home and use that education to build another career”. There are many ways we can all work together, and I am simply extending the opportunity to continue the dialogue—I am sure it will continue on the Floor of the House, but such dialogue can sometimes be engaged in more constructively with officials from different departments off the Floor—should it be helpful to the noble Baroness. I am grateful to her for raising this matter.