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Higher Education - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:51 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative 12:51 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. His introduction of this debate comes at just the right time, shortly after the Prime Minister’s recent specific guidelines for EU withdrawal. For these, in turn, can focus us all the more sharply upon the best means and approach for sustaining and augmenting the value to the United Kingdom of higher education as an export.

I warmly congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent maiden speech. Looking it up this morning, I discovered that he is the 77th Bishop of Chichester. His earliest predecessor, Saint Wilfrid, was already in office in the year 681, thus nearly 700 years before we began to develop our own two Houses of Parliament here in the 14th century.

In my remarks today, I will briefly connect three aspects. First in this context are the key priorities which we must secure within current EU negotiations. Secondly, there are certain internal adjustments of our own that we should make. Thirdly, in exporting UK higher education, and despite Brexit, we must now also aim to give a strong lead in Europe and beyond.

As we know, within Europe the Government have already guaranteed UK participation in Erasmus and Horizon 2020 for the next three years—the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, referred to this. However, the United Kingdom ought to remain within these schemes indefinitely. Since from this month our EU negotiations on all matters can be against a much clearer background, that applies not least to our request and endeavour to remain within the Erasmus and Horizon 2020 European schemes indefinitely. Can my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie, therefore, affirm that that is what we will now seek to achieve?

Then there are necessary adjustments of our own which we should make. Last year in its excellent report Exiting the EU: Challenges and Opportunities for Higher Education, the Education Committee of another place drew attention to some of these. Its advice is to be heeded if we really want to retain and increase the numbers of international students coming to the United Kingdom from both EU and non-EU states.

Its prescription for visas is backed up by a recent London Economics report. This identifies a 20% decline in international undergraduates: that is the extent to which the change to visa arrangements in April 2012 has undoubtedly put them off coming to the UK to study in the first place. As a result, does my noble friend agree that, as already advocated by a number of noble Lords, there is a compelling case for reintroducing that which previously applied, which is that tier 4 students could stay on and work for two years after their studies?

Another disincentive derives from the inclusion of international students within net migration figures. Such inclusion is paradoxical in three respects. Fewer students apply since, as so classified, they feel unwelcome. At any time, not least post Brexit, a UK Government will obviously find it all the harder to demonstrate a reduction in net migration, at present announced as restricted to 100,000 per year, if international students are included as migrants when they do not have to be at all. Furthermore, the UK economy is thereby denied the well-evidenced and considerable supplements from those disincentivised international students who otherwise might have studied here and then stayed on to find jobs.

So far, the Government profess to be constrained by the United Nations definition, which describes a migrant as someone changing their normal place of residence for more than a year. Nevertheless, does my noble friend the Minister concur that the Government are perfectly at liberty to decouple students from official migration statistics in any event? As pointed out by my noble friends Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Holmes of Richmond, to do so is entirely consistent with the implied objective of this debate, which is to consolidate and build up the value to the United Kingdom of higher education as an export.

For international students, guaranteeing that the same fees and loans will still apply; a regional growth fund to replace and exceed European structural funding; and a forward- looking strategy to link higher education with future trade deals: these are further recommendations, all of which could be made quite easily as useful and necessary adjustments. Is my noble friend, therefore, of the view that they should be?

In 2014-15, it was estimated that international students accounted for roughly £25.8 billion in gross output to our economy. They greatly assist us socially and culturally, too, thus developing the UK’s soft power overseas, as already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. However, recently and regrettably, those heartening records have worsened; our market share slipping against that of rival English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as against European countries, which now offer more courses in English.

Fortunately, we are still in an enviable position. Time and again, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth emphasised, we learn that international students in the UK develop an awareness and respect for our culture, governance, institutions and history; recent analysis indicating that 95% of UK university international graduates are favourably disposed towards the UK. Consequently, students returning to their home countries stand to become the UK’s greatest ambassadors and supporters.

Be that as it may, from abroad we are often perceived as half-hearted and lukewarm hosts. We have to correct that image and prove differently. Certainly, we must negotiate with the EU to remain in the Erasmus and Horizon 2020 schemes. We should also make necessary internal adjustments, as already outlined, to encourage more international students from all states across the world.

Yet the intervention of Brexit and its current timetable need not hold us up, for it is largely irrelevant to whether, when and how we might grasp the nettle. This we should do with conviction and straightaway, so that the value to the United Kingdom of its export of higher education can be continuously sustained through a positive and consistent response from overseas.