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Higher Education - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:48 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:48 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for tabling this debate to take note of the value to the United Kingdom of higher education as an export. I am reminded of my own undergraduate days spent in a small city on the East Neuk of Fife. Let me start by unashamedly congratulating my old alma mater, St Andrews. Today, that city welcomes students from over 140 countries worldwide. I know that many other university towns and cities do the same. It is a remarkable demonstration of the global reach of our higher education institutions in the UK.

Talking of cities, we have rather done the rounds this afternoon. We heard about Winchester, with its cultural and educational focus, and, from the noble Lord, Lord Smith, about Cambridge and Pembroke—but above all, we heard about Chichester. I was particularly pleased to hear the right reverend Prelate’s warm, interesting and informative maiden speech about this remarkable city, a place where I spent every summer as a boy. In the way that he marketed that great city to us, he provided us with an educational insight. Chichester’s excellent mix of arts, science and cultural and theological life clearly remains a great asset. Speaking of which, the right reverend Prelate will clearly add considerably to the contributions to this House. I also note the excellent appreciation that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, gave to the right reverend Prelate’s speech.

Universities generated a £52.9 billion gross value added contribution to UK GDP in 2014-15. Yes, that is a large figure, representing 2.9% of all UK economic activity, and international students are a very important part of that. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said, we attract the brightest and best from around the world, and that has been a theme of today’s debate. According to the latest data, in one year alone they contributed an estimated £11.5 billion to the UK economy through only tuition fees and living expenditure. This means that higher education generates more output than many other sectors, including advertising and market research, legal services, computer manufacturing, basic pharmaceuticals and air transport, to name a few.

Statistics published by the DfE earlier this year estimated that the total value of UK education exports and transnational education activity was £19.3 billion in 2015. That is an increase of 22% since 2010. Higher education accounted for 67%—£12.9 billion—of this exports value. Let me attempt to define what we mean by value, although my noble friend Lord Norton covered it with his customary experience and was very thorough. There is, of course, a financial aspect—the money that education exports bring to institutions and the UK—but, as he said, there is also value in the cultural diversity that international students and internationalised institutions bring. For example, our world-renowned research base is enriched and better connected. International alumni form a resource to market our higher education offer around the world, as well as becoming ambassadors for the UK. International education collaboration also helps to generate diplomatic good will and soft power for the UK.

The UK is very successful in attracting students from around the world. Indeed, only the US attracts more than we do—although I took note of the points made about Australia. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the UK’s excellent higher education reputation around the world. Eighteen UK higher education institutions feature in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2018, and four in the top 10. International and EU students make up an important part of the student body. There were 135,000 EU students and 308,000 non-EU students in the academic year 2016-17. So it is encouraging that the latest data show a 2% rise in the number of UCAS applications from the EU and, separately, a 6% increase in university-sponsored visa applications for non-EU international students. We also recognise that international and EU staff are important for the UK higher education sector. Non-UK nationals made up 30% of academic staff in 2016-17 and 10% of non-academic staff. These numbers have been growing steadily.

I want to address some of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lords, Lord Smith and Lord Storey, about the importance of how international students are welcomed to the UK. This has to include the initial welcome, the introductions that are made, dealing with any language issues that might crop up, support when they first come, and ongoing advice that might be needed. Some noble Lords might say that the same should apply for UK students, but I am obviously talking about international students here. I reinforce the point that we very much welcome international students. We hope that they enjoy their time living and studying in the UK. In a recent report by UUKi, the UK ranked top among its competitor nations in the five key measures of student experience, including overall satisfaction, arrival and orientation, and support services. Some 91% of international students across all levels of study reported that they are satisfied with their experience in the UK.

The noble Lords, Lord Parekh and Lord Bilimoria, asked what action the Government were taking to welcome the Indian diaspora, which is a fair point. I recognise that we have had a period of reduced numbers of Indian students. That is why I welcome the 30% increase in the number of study-related visas granted to Indian nationals to 15,171 in the year ending March 2018. This follows a targeted programme by the British Council in India to welcome Indian students to the UK, but there is more we can do.

UK universities are also forging ahead with innovative ways of delivering their services overseas. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned our reach to China. The University of Nottingham was invited to become the first foreign university to establish an independent campus in China. Lancaster University is the first British branch campus in Ghana and the only one of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. UK universities are often at the forefront of pioneering alternative forms of international provision, including online learning, blended programmes and joint degrees. These opportunities are open to our universities because they offer a high-quality education to students from around the world. Only a couple of days ago, I had the pleasure of hearing directly about the work of the Open University—a pioneer in distance learning and flexible study.

Research in the UK is world class. The noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Greenfield, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, alluded to this area. The UK is home to 0.9% of the global population but of 4.1% of the world’s researchers, and it accounts for 2.7% of global R&D expenditure. At the same time, we produce 6.3% of articles, 9.9% of downloads—I can give an explanation later about what that means—10.7% of citations, and 15.2% of the world’s most highly cited articles. The UK places a high value on international engagement. Over 51% of all UK publications in 2014 were internationally co-authored, with a diverse range of countries. The UK’s share of international co-authorship has been increasing annually from 2010.

Continuing to work with international partners is critical. Our research strength and our innovation have been built upon a history of collaboration—a word we have already heard, when the case for collaboration was made strongly by the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Smith. Collaboration has helped the UK to become the centre of excellence that it is today. That is why the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, has launched a prestigious, £900 million UK Research and Innovation future leaders fellowship scheme, which is open to the best researchers from around the world. This investment will fund at least 550 new fellowships for global business talent. Our investment of £65 million makes the UK a major partner in the world-leading deep underground neutrino experiment—the first international “mega science” project on US soil. Programmes such as the global challenges research fund and the Newton Fund help us to foster international collaboration as we work together to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time, such as clean energy and automation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, asked about Horizon Europe and if we will maintain involvement. We wish to explore association with innovation and research programmes, including Horizon Europe and Euratom research and training. We intend to engage fully and constructively in the design of these programmes, and we welcome the chance to discuss these specific arrangements with the European Commission.

There are other benefits of higher education exports that are perhaps more difficult to measure, yet no less critical. International students in the UK add to the diversity of the student body, contribute to the academic debate and help to create a more global mindset for our own young people. Higher education exports also make an important contribution to the UK’s “soft power”—which is probably not the greatest term, but I think that we probably have to live with it.

Students from all walks of life return home having built a positive experience and knowledge of the UK—as my noble friend Lady Redfern said—not to mention important alumni networks and lifelong friendships. Indeed, studies suggest that many world leaders attended higher-level education in the UK. That came out in the speech from my noble friend Lord Holmes. These personal connections with Britain help to build long-term social, political and trade links with other countries—and what value that brings the UK in terms of diplomatic and soft power.

I turn now to what the Government are doing to support education exports. The sector is making great efforts to promote and expand HE exports. The British Council, Universities UK International and individual universities all do this vital work. It is right that the sector itself plays a leading role, but the Government are committed to supporting its ambitions. We believe that we are in a very strong position with our global market share, but know that we cannot rest on our laurels in the face of international competition. I picked up many messages concerning that in the Chamber today. Australia, New Zealand and Canada are now seeing increases in overseas students, as are European countries that are increasingly offering courses in English. That is why we established the Department for International Trade education sector advisory group. Chaired by the Department for International Trade, Ministers from both the DIT and the DfE attend this group, along with organisations representing all areas of the education sector. It ensures that the Government understand what the sector needs and that we work together to boost UK education exports.

The DIT supports UK business by organising trade missions and inward delegations to the UK, and by publishing export opportunities online to inform the UK education sector. My noble friend Lord Norton raised an important point about the marketing of universities. I reassure him that we actively promote study in the UK through the GREAT campaign, which was mentioned, and through the British Council, which promotes the UK in over 100 countries, connecting millions of people.

To answer the point of my noble friend Lord Holmes, not just on India but perhaps all countries: we want you and your children. We can offer curry—I say this from my particular position—as well as a well-known beer brand.

My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth asked what more we can do to boost the GREAT campaign. We are always looking for ways to make it even more effective. The Department for International Trade and the DfE are working closely with the sector to explore how best to boost exports in education, including through programmes such as the GREAT campaign.

I know that the sector wants to know what EU exit will mean for its students. To help give certainty, we have given guarantees on student finance for EU students starting courses in the 2019-20 academic year or before, and assurances on research funding. The noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria, Lord Smith and Lord Watson, asked what assurances the Government can give about students for the following academic year. We recognise how important it is that students and institutions have information on student support eligibility before course applications open. Applications for courses starting in the academic year 2020-21 do not open until September 2019, but we will ensure that students and institutions have the information they need well in advance of this date.

My noble friend Lord Dundee asked about the reintroduction of post-study work for tier 4 students to stay and work for two years of the study. He will note that the Government closed the post-study work route under tier 1 of the visa system in 2012 to tackle the large numbers of fraudulent applications and graduates remaining unemployed or in low-skilled work. Graduates can stay on to work in the UK by switching into a number of easy routes such as the tier 2 skilled worker visa, which over 5,000 students did in 2016.

The noble Lords, Lord Holmes, Lord Norton, Lord Parekh, Lord Smith, and nearly every Peer who spoke in this debate, raised the important issue of student numbers being kept within the net migration target. What I am about to say will not necessarily be new to noble Lords, and I am certain that we could have a long and full debate about it. However, I have listened to the points raised this afternoon, and they will be passed on. I say again that migration statistics are independently produced by the ONS. Like other migrants, international students who stay for longer than 12 months have an impact on communities, infrastructure and services, so they are included in the net migration statistics to provide necessary data. However, this does not act in any way to their detriment. There is no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to the UK, or any plans to limit any institution’s ability to recruit them.

To help inform decisions on the future migration system, the Government have commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to provide an objective assessment of the impact of EU and non-EU students by September. This has provided an important opportunity for the sector to feed in views, and I am pleased to see that it has actively engaged with the review.

In the meantime, we continue to support the competitiveness of our world-leading HE providers: for example, by rolling out the tier 4 pilot, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Norton, which streamlines the visa process for postgraduate students at 27 universities. Just as importantly, it gives them extended leave of up to six months to find a graduate-level job. I hope that, if the pilot is successful, it can be rolled out further so that more institutions and their international students can benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked a question about maintaining academic integrity by stopping contract cheating. I know that he works tirelessly on the subject, and we recently had a short debate in this House on it. We believe that the best approach to tackling this issue is, as he knows, with a sector-led, non-legislative initiative in the first instance, and we are working closely with the OfS and the QAA’s new academic integrity advisory group—I believe the noble Lord is a member—to evaluate the effectiveness of the guidance. We remain open to the future possibility of legislation, but certainly there is no guarantee of that.

I begin my concluding remarks by saying a few important words about where we are with higher education. I strongly believe that the UK continues to be an attractive destination for students globally, which is reflected in the continuing high numbers of overseas students who choose to study here. We are highly competitive in the global mobile student market, second only to the US in the number of international, EU and non-EU students that we attract, but we are not resting on our laurels.

On the back of the Higher Education and Research Act that we took through last year there will be the provision for a faster and simpler route for high-quality new providers to enter the sector and gain degree-awarding powers. We want to ensure that those with new and innovative ideas for setting up institutions can do so and make as much of these opportunities as possible, which of course encourages students from all over the world.