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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 7:45 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I declare my interests as someone employed at the University of Cambridge. One of my roles is as co-director of the Master of Studies programme, which brings in international students on a regular basis. They come not for a year or two at a time but for temporary periods, yet they have to go through the whole visa regime, which is long and complicated. One of the things that is so difficult in higher education and recruitment is that over the years UKBA has made it so difficult for students to come here. The procedures are lengthy and time-consuming, and very often are done out of country. Yesterday I talked to one of my tutees who said that from Kazakhstan she has to apply for a visa in the Philippines—not necessarily the most obvious thing to have to do.

In many ways, part-time students have an easier time than full-time students because most of them have full-time employment so can fulfil visa requirements quite easily. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said in his opening remarks, there is something very strange about treating international students as economic migrants. Normally we think of economic migrants as people coming to work and taking jobs. That may be a good thing or it may be bad, but it is very specific. International students are paying fees. They are contributing to the local economy, contributing jobs and making a real difference. Yet time and again, usually led by the Home Office, we get decisions that make it harder for us to recruit international students.

I was going to refer to “global Britain” but the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has already mentioned it. So I will not go much further, except to say that there seems to be something very odd when a Government who are saying, “We want to make a success of Brexit and are looking for international opportunities”, do not see international students as a major opportunity.

Should the Government not be thinking of the situation for EU students? The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, has already mentioned them. At present EU students are treated as home students. Presumably on the day we leave—we keep being told that nothing changes until that day—EU students become international students. Are they then going to become part of our immigration target? Are we then going to say that EU students appear even less welcome than students have traditionally done? What are we saying? What sort of message is going to be given? What opportunity can we as Members of your Lordships’ House offer to assist the Government and the Minister of State in getting the rules changed?

In a Question for Short Debate a few weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked, “What is the problem?” In the past, under the coalition Government, the problem appeared to be the then Home Secretary, who was not very keen to liberalise international student numbers. That former Home Secretary is of course now the Prime Minister, and she does not seem to have changed her mind.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred to all corners of this House supporting the amendment. When I made my maiden speech, I was sitting exactly where the noble Lord is sitting now. I spoke on European matters and said I looked forward to working on them with Members from all parts of your Lordships’ House. All parts of your Lordships’ House appear to be in agreement on this amendment, with one exception: some Members on Her Majesty’s Front Bench. Can we find a way of persuading the Government to accept this amendment, take international students out of the immigration figures and accept that international students are an export and are not about economic immigration?