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Higher Education and Research Bill - Committee (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Lord Patten of Barnes Lord Patten of Barnes Conservative 7:30 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, my default position is always to try to be helpful. That is one reason why I was so pleased to support this very important amendment to this legislation. How can I be helpful? First, we know that having now shaken off the chains of membership of the European Union, and having turned our back on a millennium of introverted, insular history, we have become “global Britain”. It would be extraordinary if, having become “global Britain”, we were to prevent the huge numbers more of international students coming to study here. It has been said again and again in this debate that our higher education system is one of the jewels in our crown. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many other people want to enjoy its benefits.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, pointed out some of the absurdities of the present situation, such as the fact that we choose to define students as immigrants. They are not immigrants. There is arguably a problem about immigration in the medium term or the long term. What we do is simply take the figure that represents those who have come to the country in one year and those who leave it in four or five years’ time. We count them as immigrants. Why do we do it? Why do we deny ourselves and our universities the benefits of educating more young people from around the world? Why do we deny ourselves that benefit? It is not, frankly, because people in this country think we would be crazy to define students as what they are.

Every bit of research that I have seen, including research undertaken by the Conservative Party, has made it absolutely clear that people understand the difference between a student and an immigrant. People understand the contribution that students make to local economies. People understand the benefits, in the long term, of having out there—I noted what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about this—people who understand what it is to have a great education in a liberal, plural society. It is an enormous benefit to us, so it is not just about money or price, but about values.

Why do we behave so foolishly? It is because of our fixation with the immigration target. Let us be clear: we put higher education in a more difficult position and we cut ourselves off from a great deal of economic benefits because of that obsession with an immigration target, which we fail to reach, very often because we are growing so rapidly year after year. We cannot say that we are doing this because people in this country think we would be crazy to make a change: they do not; they think it would be sensible. We cannot say that we do this because other countries around the world do not behave like that. They do, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said. We take advice from the Australians on immigration policy, apparently, and look what they do. Look at what the Americans and Canadians do. They all know that at the moment, with the growth of the middle class in Asia, more and more people want to spend their money on educating their children in great western universities. We—global Britain—have made the choice to cut ourselves off from that. It is completely crazy

I support this amendment and, if necessary, I will go on supporting it as long as we debate this issue in this House. I support it, first, because I think I am being helpful to global Britain and to the Government, including the Prime Minister. When she went on that trip to India the other day, which I am sure was very successful, she wanted to talk about trade and they wanted to talk about students. I also do it because of my regard for the Minister of State. It is not only that Minister’s brother who has said how crazy it was to pursue this policy and that we should change it. I first became convinced of the importance of changing it when I read an article two and a half years ago by that admirable man Nick Pearce and Jo Johnson. Nick Pearce was then head of the Prime Minister’s think tank in No. 10. At the end of that article in the Financial Times, Mr Johnson, the Minister of State—who is not in his normal place today, so we must send him this bonne bouche down the Corridor—and Nick Pearce wrote this:

“Changing the way students are classified will have little effect on the Government’s ability to control medium to long-term net migration … The Government faces real choices over policy on international students. The difference they make to long-term net migration is relatively small. The difference these choices make to the education sector, to Britain’s soft power around the world and to the UK economy is very significant”.

That was the Minister in the Financial Times, so it must be true.

By supporting these important amendments, the whole House, as well as individual Members, is being very supportive of the Government and particularly supportive of the Minister for Higher Education, who wants us to do what is in the amendments.