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Higher Education - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:21 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 12:21 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I congratulate my colleague and friend, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on securing this debate and introducing it with characteristic eloquence and learning. I shall be succeeded in speaking by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester. I look forward to his maiden speech and welcome his presence in your Lordships’ House.

Whenever we talk about education, I am always a little worried and my worry has not been assuaged today. When we talk about education as an export and about competitors and markets, it all sounds like a civilised form of the slave trade. We are out there recruiting more and more students, and the question is: how can we make more money out of them? That is one way of looking at the issue. Happily, it is not the only way, but, sadly, it is one way in which to downgrade our higher education, thinking of higher education almost entirely in terms of how many students can be educated and how much money it can bring in.

I want to begin by alerting your Lordships to this danger and point out that the case for the presence of overseas students is not entirely or even exclusively economic; it is a fourfold case. It is based on economic grounds, obviously, but also on educational grounds, on soft power and on cultural grounds. Those are the grounds that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, briefly talked about, and I want to expatiate a little on them.

The economics are fairly simple. In 2016-17, we had 442,000 non-UK-domiciled students, of which 307,540 came from a non-EU background. If you take just first-year students and not the total number, the figures are even more striking: 235,315 were from overseas, and they made up 23% of all our first-year students. These students come from a variety of countries, but it is striking that China beats them all, with 66,415 students coming from there. The next largest cohort is from the US, with 10,885—noble Lords will see the difference between those figures. India comes third, with only 9,720 students, which is a fall from 12,280 four years earlier. It is also striking that 25% of all postgraduates are from overseas. If you look at certain areas such as business studies, the number goes up, and can be as high as 55%. In computer science, the number is as high as 42%. If one looks at the total on and off-campus contribution of these students, it comes to something like £25.8 billion, which is a massive contribution to our economy. It also creates just over 170,000 jobs. That is the economic case, which is obvious.

I turn now to the educational case. Of our academic staff, 28% were born overseas. In STEM subjects, 31% of our academic staff are from overseas. There are lots of research projects that simply would not continue unless overseas students were involved, and there are several courses that simply would not be taught if overseas people were not involved. That is the educational case, and I could go on.

The third case is soft power. As I have already told your Lordships, I do not like the term “soft power”: if it is too soft, it is not power; if it is power, it cannot be that soft. Nevertheless, using the accepted language, soft power means influencing people such that they think well of us—not in a flattering way, but in the sense of good will. Obviously, higher education achieves this. Students sit at the feet of masters. They learn a great deal and they go away thinking well of us. They establish international contacts and they go away and occupy important, high-up positions in their own country. As a result of that, they are able to oblige us in other areas when we need their help, and, in formulating the policies of their Government—economic, financial, political or other—they are able to think of our interests.

The fourth case for overseas students, and the one I am very keen on, is the cultural case. Each overseas student interacts with at least 20 to 25 local students and, in so doing, sensitises them to a different outlook, broadens their sympathies and helps to create a multicultural society to match the multicultural world in which we live. It also opens the minds of local students to the variety of human experiences and to how human beings can live and think very differently. It leads to new literary, artistic and culinary output: think of curry and Cobra—I must say that curry and Cobra is a good combination, but other traditions may be just as good. Foreign influences come in freely, interact with local factors and generate new fusions and new ways of looking at things. I know from my own experience as a professor of many years that lots of students from abroad come here largely because they think Britain is a multicultural country, where they will be able to interact with students from Africa, Asia and elsewhere. They would not find that sort of thing in many other European countries.

Given all the benefits of overseas students, why do we have reason to worry? Why are we debating the subject today? Here, I think the noble Lord, Lord Norton, put his finger on it. First, compared to other competitors, we are doing very badly. In India, for example, we have failed. I say this as one who was privileged to be vice-chancellor of a very large university in India for three years, and I regret that the great educational benefits we could confer on students from India are not available to them simply because they cannot meet our conditions.

Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, applications from Chinese students will decline in time. This is partly because China is smart at organising its universities—much better than India and many other countries. I know from my experience that it has built great universities, where a large number of Indian students go. In fact, some Indian doctors did not make it to Indian medical schools or British medical schools, but went to Chinese medical schools, learned in English and then went back to India. In dentistry, accountancy and other areas, Indian students are moving to China in large numbers.

Thirdly, the variety of students is shrinking. We used to get students from a variety of countries, but increasingly we find that, under the impact of our rules, the number of countries from which our overseas students come is in decline. There is also the influence of Empire. Three generations have gone since decolonisation took place and the Empire ended. The halo surrounding British universities has begun to decline and more and more students from India, Nigeria and elsewhere now think of American rather than British universities.

Given the kind of challenges that we face, what should we be doing? We can do a great deal and I want to run through half a dozen ideas. First, the whole business of including students in the immigration figures is ridiculous. Students do not come as immigrants. I came here 59 years ago as a student. I could have gone back but decided to stay on. I did not come as an immigrant and did not see myself as an immigrant.

Secondly, since 2012 the post-study work visa has been abolished. As a result, tier 4 students cannot work for two years after completing their studies and they feel that that is a hardship. A large number of Indian students are deterred precisely by this.

Thirdly, we need to increase the number of grants and scholarships to overseas students so that more of them are able to come. This is not a gift. If noble Lords look at the number of Indian doctors who come here, each one saves us around half a million pounds, because it costs that much to educate a doctor. We are getting these doctors free, fully trained, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer. If we can benefit from that in this way, surely we can increase the number of scholarships and grants to overseas students.

Fourthly, there must be a national strategy of the kind that France has, where they decided to double the number of students from India and China in the next two or three years. There has to be a national strategy.

We should also create a hospitable, not a hostile, environment for immigration—noble Lords know what I mean. A hostile environment discourages people. If they come here and do not benefit from either the state or our universities, then something has to be done. Our own universities have to be more proactive and put on imaginative courses that attract students from overseas. The experience of overseas students in our country must also improve, so that they can benefit from being here and do not suffer ill-treatment of any kind. I remember that an Indian student in Australia was badly treated and the result was that hundreds did not go. So it is important that students coming from overseas should be well treated.

Finally, there is the Indian diaspora of nearly 2 million people. What use are we making of this diaspora in attracting overseas students? There are ways in which that can be done and it has been done in Canada, such as by welcoming overseas students when they come, celebrating their festivals and enjoying their holidays, and in that way making them feel part of and integrating them into the local community.