The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 24 May.
“Net migration is too high, and the Government are committed to bringing it down to sustainable levels. The most recent official statistics estimated net migration in the year to June 2022 at 504,000. This is partly due to temporary and exceptional factors such as the UK’s Ukraine and Hong Kong schemes. Last year, more than 200,000 Ukrainians and 150,000 Hong Kong British national overseas citizens made use of the routes to life or time in the United Kingdom. Those schemes command broad support from the British public, and we were right to introduce them.
The Government introduced a points-based system in 2020 to regain control of our borders post Brexit. We now need to decide who comes to the UK and to operate a system that can flex to the changing needs of the labour market, such as the skills needs of the NHS. However, immigration is dynamic, and we must adapt to take account of changing behaviours and if there is evidence of abuse. The number of dependants arriving alongside international students has risen more than eightfold since 2019, from 16,000 in the year to December 2019 to 136,000 in the year ending December 2022. Dependants of students make a more limited contribution to the economy than students or those coming under the skilled worker route but, more fundamentally, our system was not designed for such large numbers of people coming here in this manner.
Yesterday, we introduced a package of measures to help deliver our goal of reducing net migration. The package includes removing the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on research postgraduate courses and removing the ability of international students to switch out of the student route into work routes before their studies have been completed. This is the right and fair thing to do. It ensures that we protect our public services and housing supply against undue pressure and deliver on the promises we have made to the public to reduce net migration.
Our education institutions are world-renowned, and for good reason, and the Government remain committed to the commitments in the international education strategy, including the goal of 600,000 international students coming to the United Kingdom each year. But universities should be in the education business, not the immigration business. We are taking concerted action to deliver a fair and effective immigration system that benefits our citizens, our businesses and our economy. We are determined to get this right because it is demonstrably in the national interest.”
My Lords, the contribution of international students to our universities and, indeed, our communities, is immense and a great asset to our country. Since 2018, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of dependants joining students in the UK, so we have not opposed the changes the Government propose. However, as usual with the Government, there is no impact assessment and no detail—just vague assertion. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people this change will affect in terms of both students and dependants, and what do the Government believe will be the actual impact of these rule revisions on the numbers?
I thank the noble Lord for that question. The numbers are these. In March 2023, 477,931 sponsored study visas were granted to main applicants, which was 22% more than in March 2022. In the year ending March 2023, almost one-quarter, 24%, of all sponsored study-related visas granted were to dependants of students—149,400—compared with 15% in the year ending March 2022. Our indication is that 88% of those dependant visas were to those undertaking taught postgraduate courses, so the rule changes will have the effect of greatly reducing the availability of the dependency visas to those who might otherwise have used them, and therefore reduce the net intake.
My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who used to run the research side of the international relations department at the LSE. We had well over 50 research students while I was there. To my knowledge, all but one returned to their country of origin, or went elsewhere, after completion of their studies, and the one who remained, an Indian, is now teaching in a senior position in a British university. Is this a real problem, or is it part of the muddle of our migration statistics? Should we not be separating students who come here for either one or three years as temporary migrants and distinguish them from permanent migrants? The problem of our current migration statistics is that they lump everyone together, which as a result makes the whole problem look worse than it is.
I am afraid that I must disagree with the noble Lord: it is a real problem, for the reasons I have just read out to the Chamber, with the statistics demonstrating the increase in dependants attending, in particular those from two countries. The numbers are startling and required action to change the rules, and I am very grateful for the support from the Official Opposition in doing that.
My Lords, may I raise the issue of British Overseas Territory passport holders having to apply for a student visa to come and study here? Not only do they have to apply for a visa but they are not allowed to apply directly; they have to apply via a high commission in a third-party jurisdiction, which is bonkers. Can we not allow them to come here directly without applying for a visa? They are British citizens after all. At the very least, if the Government will not change their policy, please may they apply directly from their own homes in the British Overseas Territory?
The noble Lord raises an issue with which I am familiar and there is much to commend in what he says. Certainly, it is something that I will look into.
My Lords, I do not think the Minister answered the second part of the question asked by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Why are we continuing to define international students as immigrants when they are clearly not in that category? Is he aware that nearly all OECD countries that have international students in considerable numbers do not define them as immigrants or migrants? They define them in a special category as overseas students. Why do we not move to doing that?
It is clear that the students who have these visas are entitled to work for 20 hours a week, the dependants of students are entitled to work in an unrestricted way and they are obviously users of services provided by the state. For all those reasons, it makes sense that they be included in the net migration figures.
My Lords, I speak as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students and the president of UKCISA. Is the Minister aware that we are in a global race for international students? We are against Australia, the United States of America and Canada, in particular, and those countries offer far better postgraduate work opportunities than we do. We offer two years; Australia offers four, five and six years. Why do we keep including international students in our net migration figures? It is wrong and fooling the public. The USA and Australia treat them as temporary migrants, which is what they are. If you exclude international students from the net migration figures, maybe the Government will hit the targets they have wanted to hit for so many years.
I refer the noble Lord to the answer I gave some moments ago. It is worth saying, in relation to the first part of his question, that these changes will ensure that the UK’s higher education establishments are focused on recruiting students based on economic value and not on dependants, whose value in terms of student fees and wages is minimal. We have been successful in delivering our international educational goal of hosting up to 600,000 students per year by 2030 almost a decade earlier than planned and expect universities to be able to adapt to reduce dependant numbers.
“If you have a child while you’re in the UK, they do not automatically become a British citizen. You must apply for your child’s dependant visa”.
Can the Minister please reassure me that, under the Government’s plans, babies are not going to be separated from their parents?
The two countries that send the most students with dependants are Nigeria and India. Our points-based immigration system prioritises skills and talent over where a person comes from, in any event. We consider any impact of our changes proportionate in achieving the overall aim of reducing net migration and allowing dependants only for a specific cohort of students with the types of skills the UK is specifically seeking to attract to assist economic growth. In answer to the second part of the noble Lord’s question, on whether one would separate a mother from a child, obviously every case is fact-specific but the principle remains that if you apply for a student visa for a course other than a research graduate study course, you are not entitled to bring a dependant.
My Lords, can the Minister just be clear? He talked with some pride about the Government’s international student strategy. If the outcome of this policy is fewer overseas students coming here to study at master’s level, will he consider that the policy has been a success or a failure?
My Lords, will the Government consider the overall need to have a much wider debate about the benefits of overseas students to this country? As far as I know from this morning’s figures, up to 480,000 came, together with 136,000 dependants. Although there may be an overall benefit in economic gain and plugging the resources of cash-strapped universities, there are other problems. They include not only having to pay costs towards healthcare and housing—or taking up healthcare, housing and education where there are dependants—but costs to the universities themselves. Following what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, many universities are now tailoring courses to the needs of overseas students. A wider debate will be needed in the education department about whether this is the right thing for our UK universities.
I thank my noble friend for that question. She is absolutely right that it is a balanced question; that is why this package of measures is targeted to achieve the objective of reducing migration. In addition to the proposal to remove the entitlement to bring dependants unless you are on a postgraduate research programme, the other aspects will, I hope, address the matters raised by my noble friend. In particular, they are: removing a student’s right to switch into a work visa route before studies are complete; reviewing the maintenance requirements for people applying for visas; clamping down on unscrupulous education agents; and improving communications about visa rules to universities and international students, along with improved and more targeted enforcement activity by the Home Office.