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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 25th January 2017.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for Education) (Higher Education) 8:00 pm, 25th January 2017

My Lords, I mentioned something about hot seats in respect of my position later in Monday’s debate. I feel that the temperature has risen somewhat in debating this issue. As one noble Lord said, it is rather an old chestnut for this House. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that it is an important matter.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, for moving this amendment and to those noble Lords who have put their names to it. This debate has demonstrated considerable strength of feeling and provided a useful opportunity to discuss international students.

Before dealing with the specific amendment, I should like to make clear the Government’s position on international students generally. As has been said—the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, put it pretty succinctly—perception is vital. It is important that we give the impression that the UK is a welcoming place for international students. I make no apology that, when we came to power in 2010, we took steps to rid the system of abuse that was then rife. No one denies now that action needed to be taken then. More than 900 institutions lost the ability to bring in international students. However, there is a world of difference between clamping down on abuse and our policies on genuine students. The Government welcome genuine international students who come to study here. Their economic contribution is significant. Not only do they enrich the experience of home students, they should also form a favourable view of the UK which should serve this country well. That is why we have never imposed any limit on the number of genuine international students who can study here, and why—I must emphasise this point—we have no plans to impose such a limit. Educational institutions will continue to be able to recruit as many international students as they want. I agree that it is a major opportunity, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said.

Noble Lords have said that UK educational institutions are in competition with other countries for the best student talent. I want to outline the UK’s “offer” and how it compares internationally. Students from outside the EU need a visa to study in the UK. They need to show that they have the necessary academic ability, competence in English and funds to support themselves. Other developed countries, quite reasonably, set similar requirements. The system already allows students from low-risk countries to produce fewer documents. In 2015, 93% of student entry clearance visa applications were approved, a number that has risen every year since 2010, and 99% are approved within 15 days.

The terms which apply to students once here are again highly competitive. International students attending higher education institutions are allowed to work 20 hours per week during term time, the maximum that is compatible with devoting sufficient time to their studies, and similar to the rules in the United States, Australia and Canada. International students are additionally allowed to work full-time during holidays.

Post-study work is a matter of considerable interest to the education sector. Any international graduate of a UK university who is able to secure a skilled job can move into the workforce. There is no limit on the number who can do so and numbers have been rising year on year, with over 6,000 recent graduates doing so in 2015. If international students have been undertaking a course lasting more than a year, which covers the majority, they can remain in the UK for four months after finishing their studies, during which time they can work. The only country in the world with more international students than the UK is the United States. In the US, international graduates, other than when they are undertaking work directly relevant to their degree, must leave the country within 60 days of the completion of their programme.

I give a few statistics to support my proposition that the UK does welcome students. The UK is the world’s second most popular destination for international higher education students. Since 2011, university-sponsored visa applications have risen by 8%. Although Indian student numbers have fallen, as was mentioned earlier, we have seen strong growth in respect of other countries, including a 9% increase in Chinese students in the year ending September 2016, as was also mentioned. This shows that our immigration system allows for growth. I apologise for speaking at some length on these matters but it is important to lay out the facts and address this very important point of perception.

I turn to the specifics of the amendment before us. While I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for the clear way in which he introduced it, I must confess that I am somewhat puzzled by it as it requires that no student should be treated as an “economic migrant”. But what is an economic migrant? I suspect that we all have a view of what we understand the phrase to mean, but no such term exists in law. We believe that it is used in the media; it is just a term which is used. I assume that those behind this amendment have in mind, when they refer to economic migrants, people who come to the United Kingdom on tier 2 work visas. People on a tier 2 visa come for a specific purpose on a time-limited visa and are expected to leave again when it expires, but that is precisely what the education sector tells us happens with international students. Similarly, those coming on a work visa may have conditions attached about the kind of work they can do. Equally, international students are limited in the number of hours they can work during term time. Again, this seems unexceptionable, and I am not sure why a parallel between international students and economic migrants would be seen as a bad thing. In one important regard there is a difference between economic migrants and international students. The main tier 2 (general) work visa is capped, with an annual limit of 20,700. By contrast, there is no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to study here.

I should also deal with the inclusion of students in net migration statistics. Immigration statistics are produced by the ONS, the UK’s independent statistical authority. It would be inappropriate for the Government to seek to influence how statistics are compiled. By including international students in its net migration calculations, the ONS is following international best practice. I say in response to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on this matter that this approach is considered best practice by the United Nations, which I think was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Willetts, and is used by a wide range of countries, including the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand. International students use public services and contribute to population levels. Those planning the provision of such services need to know who is in this country.

With respect to the Government’s net migration target, so long as, in any given year, the number of arriving students broadly corresponds to the number who leave having completed their course, students should make a minimal contribution to net migration. I repeat that genuine international students are absolutely welcome here. We do not, and will not, seek to cap or limit the number of international students.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked when the Government’s consultation would be published. I suspect she has heard this response in the House before but we intend to seek views shortly. I am afraid that at present I cannot give the House an exact date or timetable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the arrangements for EU students post Brexit. We recognise that future arrangements after we leave the EU for students and staff who come to the UK is a key issue for the higher education sector. The noble Baroness will have heard my next point before, but this issue will need to be considered as part of the wider discussions about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

My noble friend Lord Willetts asked a couple of questions, including one on the ability of universities to plan ahead. He asked me to confirm that the Government were not planning changes to the visa regime. He also asked where education was placed within the industrial strategy. I have made it clear that we have no plans to limit the number of genuine international students whom our educational institutions can recruit. They can plan on that basis. I do not have a full answer to his question on the industrial strategy. However, having attended a number of meetings, I know that the skills aspect is very much a key part of that strategy. I think it is best that I follow that up with a full brief on how that fits into the industrial strategy and, indeed, any other educational matters which fit into that area.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, said, this has been a good debate. I am sure that I have not answered every question that was asked or, indeed, satisfied the Committee given that this is a hot topic and an old chestnut, as was said earlier. I am very grateful indeed to all those who have contributed. However, with the assurances that I have given, I hope that the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw this amendment.