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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, for moving the amendment. I set out in some detail the Government’s approach to international students in response to the previous amendment, so I do not intend to repeat those points. However, I want to say something about the position of international academic staff, since they are specifically referred to in Amendment 464. Again, the Government have a very good record in supporting the sector.
The UK’s immigration system recognises the critical role academic staff can play in the economy and wider society, and that human mobility is linked to the UK’s ability to remain at the forefront of science and research. Immigration reforms since 2010 have explicitly taken account of the needs of academics, including scientists and researchers. The Government have consistently protected and enhanced the treatment of academics in the immigration system.
In tier 2, we have given PhD-level occupations higher priority. None of these occupations has ever been refused places due to the limit being oversubscribed. We have also exempted PhD-level occupations from the £35,000 earnings threshold for tier 2 settlement applications. In recognition of the fact that universities compete in a global talent pool, we have relaxed the resident labour market test to allow the best candidate to be appointed to PhD-level occupations, regardless of nationality and whether there are suitable resident workers available.
The amendments would provide that the immigration controls applying to non-British students or academic staff could never be more restrictive than those applying on the day the Bill receives Royal Assent. I wonder what “more restrictive” means in practice. The terms that apply to international students and workers contain a number of elements. Focusing on students, there are rules on how many hours they can work, how long they can stay in the UK after graduation, how they can move into work immigration routes, and on dependants.
Every student will have a different view on how important those various elements are. Suppose—I stress that I am offering this merely as an illustration, rather than making a statement of the Government’s intentions—we were to reduce the weekly hours that a university student can work during term time from 20 hours to 15 hours but, as compensation, lengthened the period for which undergraduate students can stay in the UK after their studies from four months to six months. Is that more or less restrictive than what currently exists? Some students would certainly see it as such; others would regard it as more liberal. It would all depend on particular circumstances and requirements. If we were to go down the route envisaged by these amendments we would be inviting the prospect of endless litigation as we sought to understand what constitutes greater restriction.
As for academic staff, as I have said, PhD-level university staff are currently prioritised within the limit for tier 2 visas. But what if we wanted, for very sound economic reasons, to give priority to another sector of the economy? Again I make no statement of the Government’s intent, but it is surely a possibility. Even if all the evidence pointed in one direction, the amendments would prevent such a change being made.
However, my principal concern about the amendments is that they seek to set the immigration system that applies on the date of Royal Assent in stone. Imagine that, as sometimes happens, a particular loophole in the immigration rules emerges, which everyone agrees needs to be dealt with. If the remedy was arguably restrictive, nothing could be done to close the loophole—even if government and universities agreed it was a problem—without amending primary legislation.
I am sure the House will acknowledge that we sometimes encounter instances of unintended consequences in immigration rules. We remedy these through minor changes. For example, we have very recently tidied up the rules on academic progression to deal with concerns raised directly by the education sector to the Home Office. These changes have been welcomed as improving the rules on academic progression but, under these amendments, had anybody been able to argue that what we were doing was in any way more restrictive, we would have been unable to respond to the sector’s concerns.
I understand the motivation behind the amendments, but I cannot advise your Lordships to accept them. Setting in stone the immigration system as it happens to be on a particular day, exposing ourselves to the possibility of extensive litigation and denying ourselves the opportunity to make even desirable changes is surely not the way forward. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw Amendment 463.