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My Lords, Amendment 462 is in my name and the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon. The subject of this amendment is the practice of treating higher education undergraduate and postgraduate students as long-term economic migrants. It is a subject that is, frankly, extremely familiar to the House. We have debated it on a number of occasions in the last six years to my knowledge, and speakers from all corners of the House have deplored this method of treating students as economic migrants. I remember an occasion, I think when the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was standing up for the Home Office, when 20 people in succession denounced this system, and not one spoke in its favour. Noble Lords are familiar with this matter, so I will not go on at great length, but we have an opportunity to do something about it, not just to wring our hands and talk about it.
I will not weary the Committee with a shower of statistics, but no one contests that the excellence of our higher education establishments is a massive national asset, making the sector one of our largest invisible exports and putting us second only to the United States in the league tables of that sector. In addition, no one contests that overseas students who pay in ready cash for their fees and maintenance costs put huge resources into our economy and create, rather than substitute, employment. They are an important part of our universities’ ability to function effectively and, as they have done in recent years, to expand.
To give just a few figures, 13% of undergraduates are overseas students, while 38% of postgraduates are. No one contests that when these students return to their home countries, they represent a substantial, if unquantifiable, source of soft power for this country for decades to come. Yet we categorise these students as economic migrants, and in recent years have piled up a mass of obstacles, both bureaucratic and material, to their coming to study here, and post-Brexit, there could be more. The consequences are pretty clear: overseas student figures are down substantially. Overall, the number of non-EU students is down by between 2% and 8%. The number of students from India is down by a half in the last two or three years.
The Government protest that we are doing extraordinarily well because of the numbers from China, but I really would ask whether it is wise to depend to an increasing extent on students from an authoritarian country which could quite easily turn the tap off, just like that, if there was a political spat between us. Look at our main competitors: the US, in that same period that we were down by between 2% and 8%, was up by 7.1%; and Australia was up by 8%. We are losing market share—it is as simple as that.
This amendment has two objectives, one positive and the other negative. The objective of the positive part of the amendment is to place a duty on the Secretary of State to encourage overseas students to come to this country—not just to not discourage that but to positively encourage it. I know the Government make efforts to do that, but most of the efforts they make are countered by this pile of obstacles that they put up at the same time. The objective of the negative part of the amendment is to cease treating these students, whether postgraduates or undergraduates, for public policy purposes, as economic migrants. This is much more than just a statistical issue—although the statistics are part of it—but I sometimes ask myself how there could be any rational explanation for a Government who are under criticism for the level of immigration insisting on artificially boosting the figures by including students. It makes no sense when it is not done by the United States, Australia or others where the issue of immigration is also very sensitive, but they do not make this mistake.
The wording of the amendment, therefore, goes wider than statistics and addresses the whole range of policies that might discourage higher education students from studying here. I hope very much that this can be pursued and adopted as part of this Bill. I beg to move.