It is a pleasure to open the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Benton. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for consideration of this important issue. My request was supported by hon. Members from all three main parties. In that spirit of consensus, I will begin by endorsing the words of the Home Secretary when she made her statement on student visas to the House:
“The UK has a worldwide reputation for providing quality education to overseas students, and Britain is rightly the destination of choice for many people wishing to study abroad”.—[Hansard, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 855.]
Indeed, that reputation—that quality—has made UK education a major export. My constituency includes both our city’s outstanding universities—Sheffield, where I spent most of my working life, and Sheffield Hallam, where I was a governor for seven years in its previous incarnation as Sheffield City polytechnic. The issue is critical for those institutions, as it is for many across our country. Some 12% of the university of Sheffield’s income—a total of about £50 million—derives from international student fees, with more than £20 million of Hallam’s income coming from the 10% of their students who come from overseas. In addition, the two universities estimate that their international students spend around £90 million a year in the Sheffield city region.
We also have Sheffield college, with 300 overseas students contributing £1 million in fees and probably a further £1 million in local spending. Also in my constituency is Sheffield international college, which provides language courses for up to 1,000 students a year paying £10 million in fees and contributing up to £15 million to the local economy. Overall, international students contribute approaching £190 million a year to Sheffield’s economy. Just pause to think about that in terms of the number of jobs and businesses they support in just one city.
The UK is the second most popular student destination in the world after the United States. Overall, the international student market is estimated to be worth £40 billion to the UK economy. It is a growing market in which we have been increasingly successful. From 2000 to 2008, our world market share rose from 1% to 11%, while at the same time the US share dropped from 24% to 19%, so there is a lot at stake in the changes that we make to our student visa system.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I support the Government in wanting to have robust checks on the level of students coming in, but there is a particular issue for this year where offers have been made. The universities thought that they could have some discretion on how the English tests were set. Where offers have been made, there is a particular issue this year, given that the proposals are so prescriptive. Does he agree with that point about the time scale?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I very much agree with that point. It is one that I intend to come to. There are two issues that we need to cover: the proposals overall, where relatively small changes would make a significant difference, and the transition to the new system.
I accept that the Government recognise the significance of the changes and the enormous concern that exists within Parliament and across the sector. In their consultation on the original proposals, the Home Office received more than 30,000 submissions. I recognise that the Government made significant changes that were widely welcomed within the sector, but there remain significant points of concern that our universities and colleges believe will threaten recruitment and therefore threaten our economy. Indeed, as hon. Members will be aware, the Home Office impact assessment, published on Monday, demonstrated that the proposals were likely to cost the UK economy a shocking £2.4 billion, and perhaps up to £3.6 billion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the impact is devastating for English language schools in my constituency? They have already been devastated in terms of applications as a result of the changes. If we look at the turnout today, the geographical spread of hon. Members’ constituencies, and the number of them present, shows that there is a serious problem that the Government need to get a grip on.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend’s point. There is concern across the sector, in higher and further education, in language schools, and, indeed, across the whole country. Judging by the hon. Members present today, I am sure that will be reflected in the contributions to the debate.
I do not believe that the Government are deliberately seeking to damage the economy through these measures, but, by their own assessment, that will be the effect. Over the past few weeks, Ministers have told us that good government is about listening, pausing the legislative process and making changes to get things right. Student visas are another issue where changes are needed to get things right, so let me move to the areas that I believe need attention. First, on English language requirements, my point is not about fundamental change to the Government’s proposals, but about getting implementation right. Let me start with universities. The UK Border Agency’s statement of intent for the new system, which was published in March, stated that:
“We will allow higher education institutions to choose their own method of assessing the English language competence at B2 level.”
However, the subsequent UKBA clarification document, which was issued in April, requires higher education institutions to demonstrate B2 levels of competence in all four components. It also says that, if there is any doubt about a student’s language, UKBA is likely to ask them to undertake their own approved tests—it is a crucial point—even if the institution has made an unconditional offer. That clearly conflicts with UKBA’s own statement of intent. In my constituency, Sheffield’s universities accept only students with good English, but they do not currently require students to meet the specific subset scores now demanded by UKBA; they do not need to.
Only this week I was talking to the vice-chancellor of the university of Sheffield. He gave me the example of what he described as a brilliant physics PhD student who had contributed enormously to one of his research groups, but who probably would not have passed the language requirements.
My own university, Keele, has a strong record in attracting overseas students. It also makes a vital financial contribution. The vice-chancellor has written to me about the changes. Keele has more than 1,700 offers outstanding at the moment, many of which have to be summarily revisited. Like my hon. Friend’s universities and most other universities, it accepts only students with good English capabilities, but it now finds its discretion has been removed. Will he urge the Minister and the Government to reconsider the issue, particularly with regard to any unintended consequences?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and join him in urging the Minister to look again at that issue. We should trust the universities to determine adequate levels of English competence. After all, they have, through their own initiative and ability, developed our education into this worldwide export earner.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He talks about the offers that universities have made that may now have to be withdrawn. The vice-chancellor of the Manchester Metropolitan university, whose views will be very similar to those of people up and down the land, said to me that he is now in the difficult position of having
“to notify students who have accepted offers that they must now meet new conditions. We are also concerned about the legal ramifications of altering the terms of offers already accepted.”
In other words, the universities could be sued and lose out financially above and beyond the visa withdrawal.
That is absolutely right. This afternoon, we need to consider the transitional arrangements for the introduction of these new requirements and the position in which they put our universities.
The hon. Gentleman is making some sensitive contributions on this important issue. In response to an earlier intervention, he talked about trusting our universities to assess English. Does he also accept that we are going through a period of time in which that trust in some colleges has not been something that we can rely on? How would he ensure that immigration student visas are there for valid educational reasons and that there is enough scope and control, while, at the same time, allowing that amount of trust to the colleges that he is talking about?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Part of the difficulty with this debate is that it has focused on discouraging international student numbers from the demand side. We should be looking at it from the supply side by dealing with those institutions that forfeit trust. I agree with the highly trusted sponsor system, which is the same trajectory of policy as that of the previous Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Overseas students are absolutely vital in Oxford both for the universities and the many language schools. Is not one damaging feature of what the Government have done the erection of this huge bureaucratic maze through which institutions have to go? Would Government Members not be complaining rightly about red tape if this applied to any other area of exports? Clearly this issue has been exempted from the red tape moratorium. Is not the answer to bring forward a system that combines highly trusted status, proper inspection and a proper operation of country risk profiles?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point from his huge experience and from the fact that there are two excellent universities in Oxford and I certainly agree with him.
Let me move on to the problems that have been created by the speed of implementation. When the Home Secretary was announcing the revised tier 4 arrangements in March, she said:
“We recognise the need to implement these changes in a staged manner that minimises disruption to education providers and students.” —[Hansard, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 858.]
We all know, I think, that that is not happening. The new requirements took effect on
Let me clarify this matter. If the certificate of acceptance was issued before the new rules came in, the new rules do not apply. There is no retrospection in this. Before this hare is set running, let me stop it because it is simply not true.
Does my hon. Friend share the concerns expressed by the university of Nottingham in my constituency? Not only were these changes implemented very quickly, but detail on the changes is released in policy guidance and is changed on numerous occasions. The university says that the UKBA’s list of approved English language qualifications in the policy guidance changed numerous times between
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It goes back to the fact that the Government are not achieving the Home Secretary’s desired intent, which is to ensure that these changes are introduced in a non-disruptive way.
I return to the point that the Minister made. Clearly, there is confusion within our universities, so it might be helpful if he undertook to liaise with Universities UK to put out a statement saying that all offers made will be honoured without the requirement to meet the new visa regulations—if that is what he said.
If an unconditional offer was made and accepted, the certificate of acceptance would have been assigned before
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Did he, like me, hear the Minister say that the position was the same for those students who had received an unconditional offer and an acceptance? I am not sure whether I heard the Minister clearly. If that is the case, it does not deal with the many students who had conditional offers, which is one of the problems that the universities and colleges are facing.
That is a helpful observation from my hon. Friend. Will the Minister cover that point in his later remarks?
May I raise another transitional problem that was mentioned to me by the academic director of Sheffield international college regarding its preparatory programmes for the university? Sheffield international college provides pathways programmes. About 600 of its students each year go on to one of our universities in Sheffield. These students came to the UK with a conditional offer to proceed to the university of Sheffield if they succeeded with their language course at Sheffield international college.
They arrived in good faith but now face a change that has required a small number of them to sit additional English exams in their final term so that they can renew their visa. The new regulations require minimum levels of achievement in elements of the English language test that were not required on the students’ entry to the UK. Consequently, they find themselves in the final term of their programme working hard to try to stay in the UK to complete it rather than working hard to achieve their conditional requirements.
In addition, the new requirements came into force on
If those particular students have been asked to return to China, can my hon. Friend confirm whether they have been told that they cannot re-enter the UK for a further five years, on the basis of a failed immigration application, or will they be allowed to return to the UK when they have completed the test?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I should clarify that the students have not been asked to return to China. They decided to return to China because they have been unable to secure the tests that they now need to sit in order to proceed to university on the basis of their original offer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is, of course, a member of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which visited China earlier this year. While the Committee was there at the end of February and the start of March, robust representations were made—let me put it like that—by both businesses and students in China about the forthcoming visa regime in the UK. The evidence that my hon. Friend has just given reinforces the negative impression that exists in China about the welcome that Chinese students will receive here. Does he agree that that is significant not only for the intake of students from China, with all the benefits that accrue from that intake, but for the long-term relationships, particularly the long-term business relationships, that could accrue from a country that will be a leading global economy?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Only yesterday I was talking to the pro vice-chancellor of one of our north-western universities. It has an associated campus in China, which he visited recently. He made the point about the damage that is being done to our reputation abroad. There is another issue to which the Minister might want to refer later. Notwithstanding the changes that have been made, there has been residual reputational damage, which we need to address as a country by working with our universities and colleges on a positive promotion of Britain as a country that is open for business.
My hon. Friend is making a very good case, assisted by the fact that there are about 25 Members here to support him and also by the fact that the Minister has had to intervene regularly to try to clarify the Government’s position.
My hon. Friend has identified two specific problems. First, I have several language schools and other schools in my constituency that are suffering, so I know that there is great competition internationally in this field. We were ahead of the game and now we are behind it. That is causing not only reputational damage but genuine economic damage to very good schools, which may go under because the Government are sending out all the wrong signals.
Secondly, I received an e-mail from Leiths cookery school, which is in my constituency. It was told two months ago that instead of 20 places for non-EU residents, it would have only three. That makes not only a big business difference but a big culinary difference to that school. [ Laughter. ] We are now becoming a bit of a laughing stock in the international market because the Government are constantly chopping and changing in accordance with a political agenda, which is undermining education in this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, which echoes the concerns that I and other Members have expressed.
I now want to discuss a second area of concern, which is the changes that are being made to the post-study work route. Having worked with international students, I know that post-study work opportunities are an important factor in their choice of country in which to study. In a question that I asked when the Home Secretary made her statement on student visas on
Post-study work provides students with the chance to consolidate their learning in a relevant context and to obtain full value from what has been a considerable investment in the UK educational system. Equally, having talked to companies in Sheffield, I know how much they value the chance to recruit talented international graduates, particularly those with a PhD, for a time-limited period.
In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into student visas, post-study work was critical. However, we also need to look at the basis of our discussion of student visas. Those who come as students and stay on specifically to work in a particular field because of the degree that they have managed to obtain are actually not migrants at all, because they wish to leave the country eventually. Is it not the point that if they are not migrants they should not even be included in the immigration figures?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and, having read the Home Affairs Committee’s report on student visas, I also thank him for the quality that that report has added to the discussion of this issue. I very much agree with him about the specific point that he has just made, namely that we should not consider international students as migrants. Certainly immigration is an issue and when I talk to people on the doorstep in my constituency they express concern about it, but nobody has ever expressed to me any concern about students being in Sheffield.
I know that the Minister, when he addresses this issue, will say that we are bound by the requirements of the United Nations, which defines migrants as those travelling to another country for more than 12 months. However, our main competitor in this market is the USA and it has chosen not to define students as migrants.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Earlier this week I spoke to the vice-chancellor of Lincoln university and she told me that the current arrangements for post-study work gave the UK a competitive edge in the market for international students. Does my hon. Friend share that view and, indeed, has he culled that view from universities across the country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That view has certainly been expressed to me on many occasions by many vice-chancellors. It also reflects my experience of working with international students. As I said earlier, this is a market in which we have been spectacularly successful, growing our world share of it from 1% to 11% at the same time as the USA’s world share of it dropped. One of the contributory factors in that decline in the USA’s world share was the way in which the USA messed around with its own visa requirements during that time.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. However, in fairness, he is not using a holistic approach. The Home Office concedes that one in five students in higher education and on pre-degree-level courses will become a de facto economic migrant, and therefore the complete fiscal impact, given the net rise in immigration, will clearly include an effect on the public purse and on the delivery of important public services.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Is not the response to Mr Jackson that he is ignoring these graduates’ contribution through their wealth creation, skills and taxation payments? If the Government will not listen to us, should they not listen to Sir James Dyson, who not only sits on the Prime Minister’s business advisory group but headed an innovation taskforce for him? Sir James said:
“It is sheer madness to be effectively chucking out graduates who we desperately need. I am afraid what it will end up doing is driving firms like us abroad because we simply can’t get people to do our research and development.”
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. I have talked to companies in Sheffield, and they say that the opportunity to have some of the best intellectual talent in the world working with them in product development and improving manufacturing processes is a startling benefit that our city gets from its two universities.
I will move on to the specifics of an area that the Government have seen as problematic: the post-study work route. I understand, unless there are more changes that the Minister wants to share, that under the new proposals international graduates of UK universities will, from April 2012, need a confirmed job offer for a graduate level role—that is fair enough—but which pays at least £20,000, and they will need to apply for a tier 2 visa for the job before their tier 4 visa expires. There is nothing wrong with limiting work to that of a graduate level, but the imposition of a £20,000 salary threshold is too restrictive for some sectors and regions. Sheffield university tells me that its average graduate starting salary falls below £20,000: in arts and humanities it is £16,600, in pure science it is £16,100 and in social sciences it is £18,000. According to the graduate employer survey of 2011, graduates in Yorkshire should generally expect a starting salary of between £15,000 and £18,000.
One of Sheffield university’s strengths is architecture. The students’ union international students’ officer, Mina Kasherova, in written evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, highlighted the problems facing architects: they need to gain work experience after graduation to obtain their professional qualification, but they will not be able to get such a post with a salary of more than £20,000 through tier 2.
This is an open question. The hon. Gentleman made the point that the average salary requirement for a student coming to this country to go on to post-graduate study would be higher than that which a student from this country would normally accept. Does he believe that we ought to set the bar higher for international students, as a point of principle?
We should ensure that we make a realistic offer to students coming here. If we say that we recognise, as the Home Office has, and as the Government have in their reconsideration of their original proposals, that post-study work is part of the attraction of coming to this country, we have to be able to offer that work meaningfully, for the benefit both of the students and, as some of my hon. Friends have said, of companies here. Universities UK has pointed out that this problem extends to a range of professionals, including trainee solicitors, pre-registration pharmacists and optometrists.
The second problem in relation to post-study work is the reduction of the period that students have in which to find a job, from one year to that indicated by the date of expiry of their tier 4 visas. Universities UK points out that recruitment in certain roles and sectors is cyclical, and that some individuals might not be able to apply for certain roles because their visas will have expired before the recruitment process takes place. Will the Minister consider applying some flexibility and common sense to the starting salaries and the time period?
A third area of concern is the maximum length of study. Universities UK is worried about limiting the maximum total period of leave to five years of study at national qualifications framework levels 6 and 7. If that limit is rigidly applied, it will prevent international students from studying a four-year undergraduate degree followed by a two-year postgraduate programme. I recognise that there will be exceptions, but they should not be limited to courses that lead to the award of a professional qualification or registration, because there are many other long courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. The limit is causing concern to Scottish universities in particular.
The fourth area of concern is a very distinct one, and I mention it on behalf of Margot James, who would have been here herself but for the demands of a Public Bill Committee. I understand that she has corresponded with the Minister on this, and is awaiting a reply to her latest letter. In her constituency, as in mine, the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust runs a college that provides practical skills therapeutic education for young people aged 16 to 25 who have a range of learning difficulties. It offers just five places each year to overseas students and, due to the specialist nature of its work, the annual fees are between £70,000 and £100,000. The students there clearly work at or below NQF level 1, and therefore will always fail to meet the requirements for level 3. This is clearly not abuse of the system but something that needs a common-sense and flexible approach.
All the issues I have raised are ones of detail, and dealing with them will not undermine the Government’s objectives. Failing to deal with them, however, will undermine the recruitment efforts of our universities and colleges. In conclusion, I wish to make a general point about the Home Office’s impact assessment. It is extraordinary that we seem to be pressing ahead with proposals—the Minister has signed them off—that it has been demonstrated will cost the economy possibly £3.6 billion, including £170 million in tuition fees over the next four years. That will mean millions lost to our universities at a time when they can least afford it because of the changes that they undergoing, and billions lost to the economy at a time when we can least afford it. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will genuinely reflect on these issues and make changes that will not undermine his policy goals, but avert that damage.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I take the opportunity to mention that I intend to commence the winding-up speeches at no later than 5 pm. A number of Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and obviously everything will be done to try to get everyone in, but I ask you all to bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Benton. I congratulate Paul Blomfield on his cogent, intelligent and measured speech. If I might make one slightly negative observation, it was perhaps very narrow, and I understand that, given that he pursued his constituency interest, rather than looking at the overall picture on immigration. It is a mark of how important this issue is that the hon. Gentleman has the support of so many of his hon. Friends, who will no doubt make eloquent pleas on behalf of the higher education and other institutions in their areas.
The Government’s policy must be seen not simply in a vacuum or within the narrow parameters of student visas, but in the context of the Government’s commitment to reducing net immigration. That policy position is supported by a substantial majority of the British electorate; it was clearly enunciated in the Conservative election manifesto in May 2010 and it was recapitulated in the coalition agreement of that month, which is the basis on which this Administration put forward their policies.
I have to say that the position we have taken was also a constituent part of the policy pursued by the former Government. Mr Byrne, and even Ed Balls, have expressed concerns and linked the inability to deal with immigration to the fact that the Labour party achieved its second-worst electoral result last year.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that these measures will only make the UK a less competitive and less attractive destination in the international student market, which is a significant growth area?
Time permitting, I hope to articulate the slightly wider view that universities have not only a narrow remit to deliver education to their paying customers as part of a contractual relationship, but a social responsibility to educate the people of this country appropriately.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One problem with the lens through which the previous Government looked at immigration policies was that it often focused predominantly on economic perspectives. Having had years of immigration, which have kept working wages down, and hearing that we need different immigration policies based on economic benefits, the British people want to see immigration brought under control first before they move forward. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend makes an astute point. Incidentally, there is no empirical, anecdotal or demonstrable academic evidence to show that there will be a significant impact on good-quality institutions and the courses they offer. That is simply because we are going forward incrementally, and we cannot yet assess the impact.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He says that there is no empirical evidence, but all of us have received letters from university chancellors in our constituencies and adjoining constituencies. They are specifically and clearly saying that the Government’s measures will radically affect their institutions financially and in terms of the facilities that they provide for other students. How can the hon. Gentleman say what he has said?
I am touched that the hon. Lady calls me her hon. Friend, and I am happy to accept that sobriquet. I would direct her to the recent comments by Nicola Dandridge of Universities UK, who said that the Government’s proposals
“take into account many of the concerns expressed by Universities UK and will allow British universities to remain at the forefront of international student recruitment.”
That was said after an exhaustive, detailed and comprehensive consultation with key stakeholders, including language schools, universities, colleges of further education and others intimately involved in the system.
If I am called to speak, I hope to refer to a letter that I have had from the principal of Edinburgh university, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea. The university was founded in the middle of the 16th century, and its chancellery recently passed a humble address on the occasion of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 90th birthday. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is not a reputable institution and that the concerns raised by the principal are not real?
The former Prime Minister was an alumnus of Edinburgh university. However, none of us is in any doubt that we live in an age of globalisation and that we must be competitive. The Government’s template and watchword is that we will be open for business and geared to growth across a number of areas, including manufacturing, services, finance and higher education. We all understand that that approach is based, in the higher education sector, on the reputation, kudos and prestige of the institutions involved, and none of us has any argument with that. I truly and sincerely believe that the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister would not hastily introduce proposals that damaged that reputation.
The onus is on those taking the Government to task to demonstrate that the proposals will damage the reputation of the higher education sector and that they are not—as I believe, and as the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee would surely concede, given the views expressed to his Committee—about dealing with bogus institutions, bogus students and overstayers. I will talk later about the financial impact, which I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Sheffield Central.
The wider issue is that if we do nothing about net migration, we will have a population of 70 million in 20 years and one of perhaps 80 million in 50 years. Under the Labour Government, net migration quadrupled to 237,000 per annum between 1997 and 2007. With the exception of Malta, England is now the most overcrowded country in Europe, along with the Netherlands. Under the former Government, 5.2 million people came into this country as foreign migrants, while 2 million left.
As I said, senior parliamentarians have noted that significant mistakes have been made. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the projections made about European Union migration before the free movement directive came into force in 2004. Officials at the then Home Office told us that about 13,000 to 15,000 EU migrants would seek temporary work under the worker registration scheme, but they were out by a factor of 25, if not more.
I have no objection to the hon. Gentleman’s widening the debate, because he touches on the context of the Government’s actions. However, on his last point, we cannot do anything about EU migration. Does he not agree that we should be careful about restricting genuine people from taking genuine, legal routes to come here to study, because we cannot stop people coming from the EU? Does he not also agree that it is essential that we know the figures—how many people come in and how many go out—when we debate immigration? To this day, we do not have accurate figures.
The Chairman of the Select Committee makes his point in his normal charming and intelligent way. My wider point, which he anticipates, is that the former Government made no effort to anticipate EU and non-EU immigration. Indeed, it has recently come to light that they suppressed research commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which looked at some, although not all, of the negative consequences of large-scale migration.
All I am asking in considering the specific and narrow point about tier 4 student visas is that we genuinely look at the cost-benefit analysis for the wider community. Yes, we can argue about nuances and value judgments made by individual higher education institutions, but at the same time we must concede that within the wider policy framework, these decisions, which are essentially about large-scale migration, have wider ramifications. That is consistent with the Government’s view that we must move away from the inexorable conveyor belt towards a population that will be significantly greater within 25 years than the population of Germany or France, for example.
The policy has been flexible and there has been appropriate consultation. It is aimed principally at bogus students and overstayers. I would like to see the evidence that HE institutions will be adversely affected, because the level of graduate unemployment across all disciplines in the UK stands at something like 20%, which is pertinent when considering public policy on the recruitment of international students who might stay to work after the conclusion of their studies. That is fair. If we look at the fees regime and at how financial arrangements for universities will progress over the next few years and measure that against demand, we see that because of our reputation and because we have the kudos of being a principal centre of superb higher education in the world, the demand for people across the world will remain high, whether for chemical engineering, languages, dentistry or humanities.
Although many universities, including my universities in Nottingham, say that this will have a detrimental impact on their ability to recruit students and therefore on economic activity in the UK, the hon. Gentleman suggests that we must wait until that damage is done before the Government will act. That seems immensely short-sighted. Everyone is warning that this will cause damage and he wants to wait until the damage is done.
The evidence given by Migrationwatch UK for example—[ Interruption. ] Migrationwatch UK has put forward an evidence-based, robust and demonstrable case. It may not be to the taste of many Opposition Members, who are reminded on too many occasions of their abysmal failings in the management of immigration on behalf of the citizens of this country. Nevertheless the case is not usually challenged in terms of its robustness, and I am sure that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee would concur.
It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman that when Sir Andrew Green gave evidence to the Select Committee, he did not regard students as migrants. His main concern was those who came illegally and bogus colleges, not genuine students coming to the country to support University Centre Peterborough.
The right hon. Gentleman has reiterated the points I am making. I will not repeat verbatim what Sir Andrew said in his evidence to the Committee in February—I think—but he said that he was mostly concerned about pre-degree education, language schools and “bogus” colleges and that he did not see the increase in student numbers per se as a “problem” for immigration. I do not dissent from that view; he and are at one. I resist the premise on which Lilian Greenwood proceeds, but I must be very careful because my brother is a professor at Nottingham university, so I am aware that it is a superb institution—he would expect me to say that, but nevertheless it is true.
The issue is not about reducing the number of students per se, but about closing loopholes and ensuring that we retain our integrity and reputation. If we look at pre-degree level courses, we must in fairness also look at the evidence over past years and draw a link between the number of students who have come into the country, over the past 15 years for example, and long-term economic migration and settlement. It would be foolish and short-sighted not to accept that many students have been economic migrants. We are looking perhaps at a reduction in student numbers of only about 10% from the 2009 figure of 270,000. No one has yet given detailed projections of how many of them would be in each sector.
On the face of it, yes, institutions will lose £105 million due to students not coming, but we must make the link and look at the opportunity cost—the displacement of indigenous people, who are British citizens, who are not in work and are on benefits as a result of jobs being taken by people who began as students but entered the work force. It is foolish to disregard that.
Even the Scottish Trades Union Congress and others have conceded that if we do not get a grip on that displacement and the corollary—the cost imposed on taxpayers—it will drive down wages and conditions, particularly for those in low-wage and low-skilled jobs in my constituency and others. That cannot be good for community cohesion and the economic well-being of the country.
In my constituency, regrettably, I do not have a university, but, equally regrettably, I do have a substantial British National party presence. Many of issues that the hon. Gentleman has brought up—the widening of the debate—are relevant to constituencies such as mine. I want to make it quite clear that representatives of local manufacturers have taken me round foundries and said to me, “The one thing that we do not want is a block on immigration, because we cannot get people from our own indigenous population to work in the foundries”. It is only by recruiting from outside that we have managed to sustain the jobs of the indigenous people who work in the foundries. Does the hon. Gentleman accept it from me that the issue is far more complex than he has articulated?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman in the great socialist spirit articulates the point of view of the forces of capital, because they will almost always seek to drive down wages.
The hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth. I am articulating the role that immigrant labour can play in supplementing British businesses employing British white indigenous workers.
My hon. Friend Mr Wilson, who is a very wise man, has reminded me of the hon. Gentleman’s party’s trouble over the concept of, “British jobs for British workers.” There was a pretty sharp U-turn over that. I am not mentioning creed, religion or colour, but economic and social trends in demography. I respect the hon. Gentleman in this instance because he is speaking for his constituents, as he is elected to do, and is a long-standing Member of the House, but I am also speaking for my constituents and from the position of having had between 16,000 and 20,000 migrants—admittedly from the EU—move to my constituency since 2004, because it is a centre for agriculture, horticulture and food processing and manufacturing. There has been displacement and pressure on maternity and other health services, housing, and in terms of crime, policing. Thirty-one per cent of children in my primary schools speak English as an additional language.
I concur with Keith Vaz: I accept that EU migration is sui generis, but it is because we can debate immigration in a reasonable and considered way that we do not give in to the BNP and allow it to spread its spite and division and destroy social cohesion. Unless we have a grown-up, truthful and honest debate, we will be in a difficult position.
Others wish to speak, so I will conclude as soon as possible. The number of overstayers has been assessed at about 32,000, as a rough guess, in recent figures by the Home Office. The focus is on overstayers. The UN definition of “migrant” has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central handled that issue sensibly. There is a debate to be had about the United Nations definition and whether students are economic migrants or merely temporary numbers in the system. That is fair enough. We hope to resolve that issue through e-Borders and discussions with European Union Governments, although I bring him back to the United Nations rather than the United States adopting that particular definition.
I respect the views of hon. Members and of the higher education sector, which is undoubtedly a vested interest and will seek to defend its business model as much as anyone else. We have seen other public services do so this week. Those in the higher education sector are articulate and can influence parliamentarians and others, for instance in the media, but they should remember that they have a responsibility to people who are not so articulate. They have a responsibility to develop scholarships and outreach programmes for people in this country, they have a wider remit to upskill people who might never have had an opportunity to go to university and they have a responsibility to drive social mobility. That is the challenge for universities.
I believe that the proposals are absolutely correct. They have taken on board the concerns of higher education institutions and others, and I think that they will deal with the issue of bogus students and colleges. I commend them to the House with the proviso that feedback will continue. In all sincerity, I do not believe that they will do anything but enhance the reputation and long-term viability of higher education institutions in this country.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Jackson. He is right to widen the debate from student visas, because the Government’s intention in trying to limit the number of students coming into this country is based on their view that over the next four years—by the end of this Parliament—they can reduce net migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.
However, I am sure that other Members, like me, are surprised that the Government have already revised their statistics and calculations. As the Select Committee on Home Affairs concluded, it will be difficult for the Government to meet that target. When the Home Secretary made her statement to the House, she said that she hoped to reduce student numbers by 80,000 each year until 2015, but on
Part of the blame must lie with the previous Government. They signed the e-Borders contract and agreed to pay the company concerned £188 million, and, in my view, they failed to monitor how that private sector contract operated. This Government, of course, have decided to end the contract with Raytheon. Sadly, it took them more than nine months to appoint a successor, and they have now agreed to spend another £30 million or so, asking Serco and IBM to provide the same service as was provided in the past.
The reason why I raise the issue, and why the Select Committee keeps raising it in every report that we produce, is that we are all for having a good debate on immigration—it is important and healthy to do so here rather than on the streets of West Bromwich, Leicester or anywhere else—but if we are to have that debate, let us have some figures on which we can all agree. At the moment, we still do not have those figures.
On the completion of the e-Borders programme and the Minister for Immigration’s focus on it, he was keen to ensure when he was in opposition that the previous Government counted figures, although I am glad that the Government have abandoned their original plans for asylum seekers to be dealt with on that famous offshore island before coming into this country. It is important that we ensure that the e-Borders programme works, for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Peterborough, which I think we all believe are extremely important in any discussion of this kind.
Everyone here today who has spoken on behalf of the great university towns and cities of this country has spoken for genuine colleges and institutions. Of course there are some in our constituencies that are not genuine, but by and large, what has driven my right hon. Friend Mr Smith and my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd to come here—as well as the hon. Member representing University Centre Peterborough, and me with my two great universities, De Montfort and Leicester—is our belief that the Government’s proposals will affect those genuine institutions. We should be cautious about damaging them and the reputation of our colleges.
The figures are coming from India already. The number of applications to this country has decreased by 40%, even before the proposals have been implemented. If that damage starts—it started in America when the Americans changed their system, and in Australia when the Australians decided to do the same—it is difficult to recover once people believe that they cannot come to study in a country. That is why we must be tough on bogus colleges.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that most of us here have come because of deep concerns about universities and colleges in our constituencies, but we also have concerns about the many reputable, high-quality English language schools that are being affected even more seriously by the changes, in some ways. The Government must change their proposals if those schools are to survive.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Home Affairs Committee held a big meeting in Brighton with local MPs from various parties, including the Green party, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, and they were all against the Government’s proposals due to the damage that they will cause to English language colleges. In many cases, such colleges are the pathway to full-time degrees. It is extremely important that we focus on them as well.
However, we must be absolutely tough on bogus colleges. We have suggested two ways for that to happen. Unannounced inspections by the UK Border Agency are necessary. In the past, the UK Border Agency rang up colleges and told them that inspectors were coming. By the time they arrived, all of a sudden—like “Mission: Impossible”, for those who are old enough to remember it—a whole lot of students and teachers had been brought in for the inspectors to see. How crazy is it to tell a bogus college that it is about to be inspected?
I had a call from a Conservative councillor in a London borough who preferred to ring up the Home Affairs Committee rather than the UK Border Agency to tell us that a new bogus college was operating in her ward. On Monday, I sent my research assistant to the college. She rang up and said that she was a student and wished to enrol on the course. They said, “Right, come along at 10 o’clock and we’ll give you a brochure.” She arrived, and there was absolutely nobody in the college. She stood outside and rang them again. They said that they were not open yet, but would be in September, and that they had applied to the Home Office. I have a letter for the Minister. I hope that he will check whether that is in fact the case, so that I can tell the hard-working local councillor whether that college is bogus.
We need proper inspections. Nobody in the Chamber has a tolerance of bogus colleges. We want to ensure that they are closed down, because they are bad for the students who go there. The second point on bogus colleges and abuse relates to the points-based system that the previous Government introduced. The system gives no discretion to entry clearance officers and immigration officers at Heathrow airport. It is left to whistleblowers to go to the Daily Mail and say that we let in all these people who had student visas who do not actually speak any English, but are doing computer courses—I think that was the last claim that we saw in one of the newspapers. We need to give discretion to our professionals. The points-based system is absolute and clear, but that extra discretion is necessary to enable the entry clearance officers to say yes and no, even if people qualify under the points-based system, and to give immigration officers the authority to make those decisions.
My final point is one that I raised with my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, and I join other hon. Members in congratulating him on securing the debate. I know that he has been trying to do so for many months. He was offered a shorter slot. He said that many people were interested in the issue, hung on and we can see the number of hon. Members who are here today. I congratulate him on hanging on long enough to secure a good three-hour debate. I will not speak for long because other hon. Members wish to speak.
The Home Affairs Committee report concluded that students were not migrants, and should not be part of the figures. They are not migrants because they come to study, not to settle. Of course, the Minister will come out with his figures and say that he finds that some settle in the end, because they keep applying to change their courses. Well, I for one have no problem with non-switching. I am not a great fan of people who come on the basis of one set of visas and want to switch to another.
I do not know whether it happened during the term of office of my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett, but the previous Labour Government stopped the switching from visitors to spouses. I therefore have to tell my constituents that, if people come here on holiday and fall in love with a British citizen, I am afraid that they have to go back and apply again. The previous Labour Government provided for that. I have no major problem with switching, but we need to be very clear. It is more of a systemic problem than one of intention. If there is a problem of intention, we can deal with it by preventing switching.
We should not, however, damage our university and English language sector by accusing all students of wanting to come here, study and stay. That is why what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said about post-work study is so important. When they choose to come here, they also choose to work for that year, and that is essential to their studies. If they do not come here, they will go to the United States of America, Australia or France.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Mr Browne, gave evidence to us, as I think he did to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Mr Bailey. He talked about Britain being the centre of world for education. He told us about Nottingham university and how he personally, because of his interest in Malaysia, had gone to Malaysia and got thousands of Malaysian students to study in Nottingham. Indeed, there is a campus just for Malaysian students. He was very proud of that. We cannot have one Minister saying that we are open to the world and then have other Ministers trying to prevent that from happening.
I hope that the Minister will not say that the UN tells him that the students are migrants, and so they have to be migrants. If they are not migrants and they wish just to study and then leave, they should not be counted as migrants. If they are working illegally or there is any abuse, I say to the Minister for Immigration—I know that he will take this seriously, and has taken this seriously—out they go. There is no tolerance of people who abuse the system. I have just come back from a visit to the Greek-Turkish border, where I saw people who are trying to come into this country, crossing over at an enormous rate. I, for one, am very happy to work with the Government and others to try to stop illegal immigration.
When we are dealing with people who genuinely want to come to study, the Government should stop, consider and reflect, because of the potential damage to our reputation as the greatest country in the world for education. That reputation was the reason why my family chose to come here when I was nine years of age. They chose to come here because of this country’s reputation for valuing education. Let us not damage our reputation. Let us make sure that our rules and policies are clear and transparent, but fair.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and to speak in the debate secured by Paul Blomfield. He made an articulate speech that raised a number of points, which I am sure the Minister will consider. I think that he will find support across the House on some points. Other points might be a little more contentious, but we look forward to hearing his comments.
Mr Benton, I must ask for your forgiveness and that of other hon. Members, as I will not be able to stay for the closing remarks from the Minister. I have a good reason, which allows me to highlight what is perhaps a contrarian point. I am meeting representatives from the Taiwanese embassy equivalent to talk about a visit by Taiwanese students to the university of Bedfordshire in my constituency of Bedford, which includes Kempston. Some Opposition Members talked about the importance of having people come from mainland China. We all have to make our choice of Chinas. I tend to prefer those that have elections and do not lock up Nobel prize winners. The issue with Taiwan that is important to mention is that we have simplified immigration rules for Taiwanese students to come to study here. It is precisely because the controls and understandings that Taiwan has in sending students overseas are so well administered that we have confidence in the country that is sending, as well as the country—the UK—that is receiving. It will be a great pleasure to welcome them.
We have a responsibility to weigh up two major factors, which have come through the different contributions: restoring people’s confidence in our immigration system and controls; and ensuring that we are optimising and maximising the opportunity to enhance the economic well-being of our universities, and the role that our open educational system can play to spread freedom, democracy, belief in the rule of law, understanding of free markets, and the belief that every citizen’s rights have to be recognised in all parts of the world. That is an important and critical role that our universities play. As I am leaving shortly, I will address those two areas quickly.
My hon. Friend Mr Jackson said that immigration control is a significant responsibility for the Government. If we do not believe that, then I do not think that any of us can have knocked on doors at the general election. It was raised as a concern by many residents. There was exasperation at how the system had got out of control under the previous Government. Both the previous Government and this Government sought to bring in controls. We are still dealing with an issue where people’s confidence has not yet been restored. I urge the Minister, in response to all the hon. Members he will hear from today, not to lose sight of the fact that he has a significant responsibility to ensure that people’s confidence in our immigration system is restored. He and his colleagues in the Home Office have made a very good start, but he has to see it through to the end. That sometimes requires very tough decisions. I urge him strongly to continue all the way through this period of office, and I congratulate him on the steps that he has taken.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that confidence in the immigration system will be even more jeopardised if the Government make announcements that claim that they will sort out the problem, but then find that the immigration figures are still increasing and that, for example, the measures for overseas students will do nothing whatever about EU students? Will that confusion lead to even less confidence in the immigration system?
The hon. Gentleman urges some very good caution. The worst thing to do is to ignore the immigration issue, pretend it is not there and destroy people’s confidence in the system, as his Government did. However, as Keith Vaz said, there is an issue about trying to ensure that we have the numbers, so that we are dealing with the facts. Facts help people to gain confidence. If people do not have the facts, it is harder to gain their confidence. However, the measures this Government are taking on that have been a significant step forward on behalf of the country.
The United Kingdom—what a wonderful country we live in, and how proud we can be of our values and our society. We have these great debates in this fantastic mother of Parliaments. We are a beacon for educated people around the world. We should be really, really proud of what is now called the soft power that countries such as ours have. The fact we have a vibrant series of educational institutions is a critical part of ensuring that the United Kingdom continues, in the words of a former Foreign Secretary, to punch above its weight. There is no doubt that hon. Members from all parties think that that is an important thing for us to accomplish.
However, we must recognise that our higher education institutions are going through some substantial changes and challenges. I would like to praise Professor Marilyn Leask, who is the dean of the Bedford campus of the university of Bedfordshire. There is a Luton campus, but I shall not speak for that one. I will speak for the campus in Bedford. Professor Leask is considering with energy and vitality how to deal with the challenges faced by our higher education system in terms of the changes to student fees. She is based in a teaching training institution for physical education and is considering new ways to accommodate those changes. We must recognise that our universities are going through substantial changes. This issue is one part of a much bigger picture that they are trying to piece together, as they put together a more sustainable long-term funding basis for their future operations. It is probably not the most important part of our universities’ business model, but it is an important issue.
I ask the Minister—again, apologies that I will not be here to listen to his response, but I shall read it with great interest—to explain how the relationship between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is operating, so that we can get a sense of whether we have an integrated strategy. Million+ is asking for an integrated higher education strategy, which is a very good thing. If we have all these advantages from being this wonderful country and if we want to educate the world, we must have a coherent strategy to achieve that. That does not necessarily mean that some of the issues raised today have to be acceded to, because I do not think that all of them are right, but it does give a context for where we are heading. As these institutions and universities are building their new business models, we need to give them a context in which they can plan for the long term more coherently.
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about this being a time of great change for universities and that they are having to look at their future planning. Does that not make it all the more important for the Government to proceed on the matter with caution and deal with the timing carefully? Universities need to be able to plan and adjust, rather than being rushed into things. That is one of the concerns that universities have raised.
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the transitional arrangements this year. She has heard an answer from the Minister on that and I am sure that he will address the matter again when dealing with some of the follow-up concerns raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central. That is a particular issue on which I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s comments.
More generally, on Opposition Members’ calls for caution, when we are looking for change, caution is not always the best way to proceed. It is important to deal with the matter clearly and cleanly, so that the people who are responsible for building business models do not have to anticipate future changes. Such an approach is helpful to them when setting their strategy. Being cautious is not always the best approach. In this instance, given my and other hon. Members’ concerns about the importance of getting peoples’ confidence back in immigration, obtaining clarity quickly will be of benefit to the long-term strategy of our higher education institutions and our universities. They need to have an integrated strategy, so that they know the Government’s direction of travel. They need an understanding between the Home Office and BIS to make that happen.
My message to the Minister is, first, that he has a responsibility to fix immigration. That is what the British people asked for at the last general election and that is what they are looking to the Home Secretary and the Minister to accomplish. I urge him to consider everything he does through that lens, rather than through the particular lens of each issue. Secondly, he has heard from hon. Members on the issue of whether students are migrants or not. It may be worth considering what happens in the United States and the United Nations. Some of us prefer the approach of the United States to that of the United Nations. Will the Minister look at that as part of setting an overall strategy, as it would be interesting and worth while to do so?
On the transitional arrangements that my hon. Friend Andrew Selous and others mentioned, again, the Minister has given an answer and I look forward to him expanding on that in his closing comments. I urge the Government to have an integrated, international higher education policy. We have a fantastic country. We have to bring people here, so that we can spread a message of freedom and spread understanding of the English language. We must give people Shakespeare and give people an understanding of the Magna Carta. If we do those things, we will have a country that can not only interact, but sell to the rest of the world.
For the avoidance of doubt, I had better declare an interest. From time to time, I receive remuneration from the higher education sector for work I do with it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield on securing the debate. After being a council leader for Sheffield and an MP for the city for 24 years, I thank him for drawing my attention to the international college’s work. I was unaware of the extent of that work—every day, I am on a learning curve.
There seem to be two aspects to what we are debating. The first is the macro. That relates to the overall issue of migration and its impact on our country and the politics in which we are all engaged. The second is the unauthorised, the unauthenticated and the unacceptable. That relates to those colleges and institutions that either do not exist or, if they do, do not provide what they say on the can they offer. In addition, such institutions do not offer courses of sufficient quality to students of sufficient quality.
Those two aspects are getting slightly mixed up, although that is not because the first matter is not important. To coin a phrase from the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, I certainly have scars on my back from the near four years I was Home Secretary in terms of the two major pieces of legislation that we introduced and the changes we made. That included the two-thirds reduction in asylum, the security and immigration provisions on French soil, the measures regarding liaison officers at airports across the world and a substantial tightening up of how we operated visas. Such policies provided a foundation on which my Government subsequently built and this Government have been building. The issue is incremental. If we take a step in one direction, we find that the plastic bottle has bulged out in another. I suggest to the Minister, who is deeply committed to this matter, that immigration will affect this Government, as it did previous ones.
As the issue has been mentioned, I would like to say how much I agree with my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz about embarkation and e-Borders. I was responsible for kick-starting e-Borders, but I claim no credit or discredit whatsoever for the contract that was let. In fact, when the 20-year rule comes in, there will be letters on file from me as a Back Bencher advising against what was done. The speed of operation to get this right is critical because, if we do not know who is leaving, we really cannot make a judgment about whether the system is working. That applies directly to students who have fulfilled their courses and/or their term afterwards for permission to work. If the system is working properly, much of what we are debating would be seen in that broader context, and we would not be so obsessed with artificial targets for future migrants. We would be able to deal with the issue of what a migrant actually is and provide a proper definition in a way that removes the harder edge of politics.
It is inevitable that there will be politics involved in discussions on immigration. We might then debate issues and not end up with policies that damage the country, rather than enhance its well-being. I do not intend to repeat what has already been expressed, because time is pushing on and extremely good points have been made. Even those points that I have doubts about have been enlightening. I would, however, like to reinforce some of the key points that have emerged.
First, the economic value to this country is not just the money that comes into the universities or the local community, but the way in which those who have benefited from both the study in, and the experience of, our country add to our potential economic value in years to come, as they become the advocates for Britain and part of global institutions and enterprises, whose connection with and alumni from our institutions make an enormous difference to Britain in this global economy and international trading world.
Secondly, to take up the point made by Mr Jackson, our universities are able to offer that social responsibility much better if they have a higher level of agreed income. The income that is coming in from overseas, free as it is from issues of debt repayment and the difficulties that we have debated over recent months, adds to a university’s ability to contribute to the wider community and the social well-being of our country. The issue is much broader than whether the university itself has an enhanced income, important as that is.
Thirdly, there is an issue about whether we really want numbers of legitimate, verified students, with the right qualifications in the right quality of institution, in this country. If we listen carefully to the debate, we will hear that everyone pays lip service to the importance of legitimate students coming here, but we then hear a different nuance, namely, “But they are foreigners and that is dangerous, because our electorate do not really like foreigners.” We need to get off that and on to where migration policy has not worked properly—even the measures for which I was responsible did not always work—and the importance of enforcement. We need proper inspection and enforcement, including clamping down on those colleges that do not really exist or are just an excuse for people to get into the country. Moreover, if our legitimate university and higher education institutions, both in the public and the embryo private sector, are not checking whether students are taking up their courses, enforcement is the crucial element. That is the end at which we need to ensure that we get this right, rather than trying to reduce, per se, the number of legitimate students coming into the country. That is critical.
In 2000, I led a delegation, which included the Higher Education Funding Council and this country’s leading universities, to China. The Chinese welcomed us and were very pleased to have a two-way arrangement with us that includes students coming on a temporary basis to learn our language and about our systems. That was a good thing to do, and anything that damages it would be a major mistake.
That brings me to my central point. It is the message we send that is absolutely critical, and the message that has been received outside this country is the wrong one. It is not that we want to avoid the illegitimate, the unacceptable and the fraudulent, either in terms of the provision in our country or of those coming in for reasons other than to study properly. The message that is being received outside this country, as has already been said, is, “You will not be welcome.” Will the Minister do everything possible, along with our embassies and high commissions, to change the message, so that it is received properly and understood by students and industry? Sponsored students are very important, and major enterprises across the world need to know that their potential employees, or those who are sponsored by them, are welcome in this country.
I want to touch briefly on the complications that we face. Many of them could be overcome if there was greater flexibility in the transition period—there is no question about that. It is no good for the Minister, who intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central, to say that, if firm offers were made before
I would like us to address why we do not use highly trusted sponsor status and the oversight mechanisms of professional and private sector operators, which will now be operated by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—I congratulate it on the speed with which it has moved—rather than a complicated system that does not rely on enforcement and inspection, but on the front end rather than the back end. To complicate matters, it is crucial—this has been said by Richard Fuller—that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills gets its act together with the Home Office, so that they speak the same language and that those with expertise share it. For instance, on professional qualifications for accountancy, why suddenly drop in, as the statement and assessment did on Monday, that there has to be approval at gold or platinum level by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, when it has preferred providers of its own? These professional qualifications are a bit like the guild system in mediaeval England.
I counsel the Minister to be very careful not to get involved in what is corporatism. For somebody who is a declared libertarian, that is a dangerous position to be in. We should not put into the hands of those who have a specific interest in particular providers the ability to exclude other providers. That is a dangerous game in terms of the kind of oversight that we would expect.
In brief, I do not think that any Member present does not think that it is a good idea to progress on the road of tightening up in relation to those who have been fraudulently operating the system or those who come here and are not legitimate students. Let us all agree on that. We might even agree that those of us who tried in the past did not come up to scratch in achieving the goals that we set ourselves. A little humility from all of us on that might not be amiss. It is important that the lessons of history are learnt: sometimes, speed leads to the obverse of the objective that is sought, and a little give and take—sensibly, openly and without criticism when people are flexible, so that we give the Minister a bit of leeway—might achieve the overall goal that he and, I believe, BIS seek, namely a system that works and welcomes people into this country, because it is good for our economy, good for our social life and good for the future of Britain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and I congratulate Paul Blomfield on his detailed opening account, which set out the issues that we are discussing. I intend to be as brief as possible, because the House has now adjourned and I am sure that Members, particularly those Opposition Members present in the Chamber, have long journeys back to their constituencies.
I support the need for strict controls to exclude bogus students, and welcome the Government’s proposals targeted at the least trustworthy institutions. As has been said, not least by my hon. Friend Mr Jackson, the previous Government did nowhere near enough to get control of the issue of bogus students and colleges. Many people in the country will welcome the change of emphasis by this Government—through the leadership, indeed, of the Minister.
Sixteen tier 4 sponsor licence-holding institutions operate in my constituency of Reading East. During the consultation period of December 2010 to January 2011, my office surveyed all those institutions, including face-to-face interviews with representatives of four of them, the university of Reading and three private colleges. Sharing some of those findings with colleagues might be helpful, although I will try not to repeat anything said in the debate. I promised the institutions involved that I would share some of their main concerns.
Both the university and the independent sector in my constituency stressed the crucial importance of achieving and retaining highly trusted status. The independent sector in particular felt that its future literally depended on such status. While the private colleges accepted the need to tackle bogus students, they expressed great concern about the UK Border Agency’s inspection process. The perceived problems largely emanated from the lack of formal criteria from the UKBA of what was necessary to achieve and retain that trusted or highly trusted status. Additionally, some expressed concern about the understanding, even the ignorance, of some inspectors about how the independent sector operated. For example, in the experience of one college, the UKBA inspector expected a desk and a seat for every single student enrolled, despite a student normally being expected to be in attendance for no more than 15 hours per week.
The most frequent call I heard from colleges was for a level playing field. The universities are granted highly trusted status as a default position but, in the view of the colleges, if the same rigorous expectations as are imposed on the private college sector were imposed on the universities, many of them would lose the cherished highly trusted status. For instance, to obtain such status, a private college is expected to achieve a drop-out rate of no more than 2% to 3%, but universities can expect to achieve a drop-out rate for non-European economic area students of approximately 6% to 10%. Therefore, the Government target of 3% was considered by the private college sector to be wholly unrealistic.
Transparency is essential for a fair and effective inspection regime, but a real concern is that colleges get no debriefing following inspection, as schools do with Ofsted. Inspection reports may be obtained through freedom of information requests, but that procedure is not really quick enough. Targeting efforts on the least trustworthy colleges in the unregulated private sector is right, but we should also remember that only a tiny minority of colleges are bogus. I hope that the new proposals will not put private colleges at a disadvantage by failing to set out clear criteria for highly trusted sponsors or with the somewhat arbitrary and opaque inspection and even evaluation process. Tackling the transparency issues will help good colleges get on with the job of educating students and will increase public confidence in the student visa regime.
In conclusion, does the Minister share my concerns? If so, what can he do to ensure the transparency in the sector that we all wish to see?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Benton. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate on student visas, which is an issue of importance not only to the ancient university of Edinburgh but to the other three universities in my city, Heriot-Watt, Napier and Queen Margaret. There are also implications for many of the city’s colleges, in particular Telford college with its new headquarters, which has a long history of welcoming international students and, indeed, only recently received an award as the best college in the UK for international student support. For the record, I congratulate the college on that award. Student visas are also of concern to many of the high-quality and reputable language schools in my constituency and elsewhere in Edinburgh.
As other Opposition Members have said, no one disputes that it is important to crack down on bogus students and colleges and on low-quality colleges. In common with many other Members, I have had people at my surgery who have been the victims of applying to colleges that then did not come up to standard. No one is under any illusion that we must tackle that issue, or the wider one of immigration, but they must be discussed in the right place and at the right time. We must not, however, allow the pursuits of a Government wanting to fulfil an arguably unfulfillable promise on immigration to have a detrimental effect on bona fide students and bona fide universities and colleges, which make a vital contribution to the economy of the UK and of many of our communities. I take issue with Mr Jackson who talked about the “vested interest” being defended by Members; we are not only talking about the professors, principals and numerous staff of universities but about institutions that affect the wider economy. Universities and colleges are important in themselves and for the wider economic benefits in our communities.
Many Members, in all parts of the Chamber, made points with which I associate myself, but I will concentrate on a number of specific issues, raised directly with me by some of the universities and colleges in Edinburgh. First, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, who commenced the debate, in many Scottish universities it is still the norm for the undergraduate degree to be over four years and not three. Clearly, the five-year limit will have consequences for those who wish to study at postgraduate level as part of the wider education offer in England, but it will have much more serious consequences for someone who might have only one year after the completion of the undergraduate course in which to consider taking a postgraduate course.
The implications are wider still. Professor Steve Chapman, the principal of Heriot-Watt university, has pointed out to me that a number of degrees include an integrated year abroad or industrial placement as part of the undergraduate course, so people will use up their five years even without going to postgraduate level. The five-year limit also means that there is absolutely no flexibility at the end of the course, for resits possibly or for delays caused by other legitimate extensions. I hope that the Government will reconsider and change the proposal to take account of the four-year undergraduate course that is still standard in much of Scotland.
In addition, Professor Chapman said that five-year integrated undergraduate and masters programmes are common, again allowing for no flexibility at the end of the five years. He points out that the school of engineering at Edinburgh university has 19 separate master of engineering, five-year, integrated undergraduate and masters degree programmes, with other courses available elsewhere in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will consider the consequences of the five-year limit for the Scottish education system, in which a four-year undergraduate degree is the norm.
My second point was made by a number of colleagues: the shortness of the notice given to universities about the changes. As I indicated in my earlier intervention, I received a copy of a letter that the principal of Edinburgh university, Professor Sir Tim O’Shea, sent to the Minister at the beginning of May:
“I write to express alarm at the changes to English language requirements as part of the Tier 4 student migration system. The changes will impact on a third of our expected international intake this year and present a serious impediment to the successful recruitment of high quality international students.”
He goes on to say:
“The changes to English language requirements for Highly Trusted Sponsors have been introduced without any dialogue, part way through our admissions cycle and with no transition phase to enable effective planning. The changes will almost certainly result in legal challenges to our admissions process given that it will necessitate amendments to offers of admission already made to over 800 international applicants seeking to enter the University of Edinburgh this year.”
He then makes an important point:
“The benefits of having ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status remain unclear if sponsors who achieve the highest levels of compliance are to be obstructed from admitting the highest calibre of international students.”
Professor O’Shea urges the Government to postpone changing the English language requirement in this admissions cycle, and asks the UK Border Agency to consult on changes for the next cycle. I endorse his comments, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the concerns expressed by Professor O’Shea and many other university principals and organisations with an interest in this debate.
There may be some misunderstandings about the implications. As my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett said, there are particular issues for those who have received conditional offers or have not completed the process of accepting a firm offer by
I could make many other points about issues that my hon. Friends have raised, including the effect on language schools, which I mentioned briefly, and restrictions on dependants, which will have an effect on some students. Concern about the post-study period was raised at length by colleagues. I will not raise those matters again today.
In statements elsewhere, the Government have recognised the need for the UK to maintain its position with our global competitors in many respects. The ability of high-quality, qualified students to come to the UK is one way of ensuring that we are globally competitive. As my right hon. Friends the Members for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, the consequences for our reputation and standing abroad will be long standing. If the message gets out that Britain is not open for business and is not welcoming to international students, it will have an effect not only on students who do not come here but go elsewhere, but on future business contacts if students do not have a positive experience in the UK, on future cultural contacts, and on general good will towards the UK. There will be short-term and long-term economic consequences.
As Richard Fuller made clear, there are many other reasons for welcoming international students to this country. It is not a question just of a narrow economic interest; there is the wider interest of Britain’s standing as a whole. However, the economic interest is important. In Scotland alone, the income raised from international student fees in 2009-10 was worth some £260 million. Of every £100 earned by Scottish universities from teaching grants and contracts, international students accounted for £16. Economic interest is not the only reason why the changes should be reconsidered, but it is important, and I hope that the Minister recognises that. Those of us who raise the concerns of universities in our constituencies are raising immediate concerns, but also concerns about our ability to compete on the world stage. I urge the Government to reconsider the way in which these proposals are being introduced, particularly with reference to the implications for those who want to come to Scotland to take a four-year degree course and thereafter to consider postgraduate study as part of the overall package that attracts them to our country.
Order. Five more hon. Members have indicated that they want to speak, and we have just over half an hour left. I will try to get everyone in, but I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate Paul Blomfield on securing the debate, and on the excellent and measured speech with which he introduced it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends who have spoken today, particularly my hon. Friend Mr Jackson who explained the background and the wider issues at stake. We have had some excellent contributions from both sides of the Chamber.
I want to follow up some of the points made by my hon. Friend Mr Wilson. In Woking, I have several private colleges with a good reputation—I do not have a publicly funded university—which make a real contribution to the life of the constituency and to their students. The Tante Marie cookery school is the largest independent cordon bleu cookery school in the UK. It was founded in 1954 by Iris Syrett, the distinguished cookery writer, and is now part-owned by Gordon Ramsay. It is an internationally renowned establishment and wants to be competitive with the world’s best cookery schools.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, I have received feedback from legitimate private sector colleges, which believe that things are stacked against them. The rules are constantly changing, and that costs each college a lot of time and money. As my hon.
Friend said, they must meet an extremely high bar to gain highly trusted sponsor status, and that includes proving that less than 2% of their overseas students drop out in the first third of the course. Most publicly funded colleges or universities would not meet that test, but they are not asked to fulfil any such criteria.
The bar is high, but my understanding and that of colleges is that, if they gain highly trusted sponsor status, their overseas students will not now be allowed to work while they are at the college, although a student studying almost exactly the same course at a publicly funded university or college would be allowed to work. That will make it very difficult for private colleges to compete with publicly funded universities, both internationally and in the UK, and to attract foreign students. A student’s ability to work during their studies has no effect on net migration, but removal of the right to work will have an impact on the number of genuine students who are interested in coming to the UK to study. If they cannot work while they are here, the UK will be a much less attractive and much more unaffordable place for them to come to study, especially as most other countries will allow them to work as well as study.
The Government’s intention is to reduce net migration and, as we have heard from my hon. Friends today, that is a laudable objective, which most people want their MPs to support and get a grip on. The best way to do that in the context of education, as we have heard from throughout the Chamber, is to crack down on the bogus colleges and to ensure that students leave when their course has finished. There is a clear difference between a student coming to the UK for the duration of a course, and someone migrating to the UK to live here. The former is undoubtedly beneficial to the UK, the student and our economy.
As my hon. Friend Richard Fuller said, what better way of spreading British values and the values of democracy, the rule of law and our cultural heritage with the rest of the world than through having genuine students come here to learn and live alongside British students in this wonderful country of ours.
I have long been an admirer of the Minister, whom, I believe, has one of the most difficult briefs in government. He approaches his task with customary tact, intelligence and verve. However, I must say that the potential unfairness of the new rules, and the way they discriminate against private colleges, even after they have achieved every level of quality assessment, will make life difficult for them. In my view, private colleges that meet all the quality criteria should have equal treatment with educational establishments in the public sector, and more equal treatment with similar colleges in other western democracies.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, in reality, students who are attracted to cookery schools such as the one he mentioned, and to most language schools, are not in competition with publicly funded universities. They are different courses and different groups of students, although I agree with him about the treatment that such colleges receive.
I am grateful for that intervention. As I said earlier, there are many different private colleges in my constituency—I gave one interesting example of a college of which I am particularly proud. I believe that both publicly funded colleges and universities, and private colleges, have a great deal to contribute, and genuine students should be encouraged to come to the UK to study.
I tried to delineate the difference in the way that private colleges have to perform against different and difficult rules. Even when they receive the status of highly trusted sponsor, they find that other rules have been introduced and that, because of the lack of a level playing field, it is difficult for them to attract genuine foreign students to come to this country.
I have heard representations from some good private colleges that genuinely feel that they are going to be bankrupted. A lot of colleges will be bankrupted, but it will be the good and bad together. That cannot be fair to the colleges, to potential students, or to UK plc. I urge the Minister to look carefully at that issue and ensure that our private colleges—in particular the good ones that have highly trusted sponsor status—are treated properly and allowed to continue with the excellent work that they have done over many years for those foreign students who gain so much from coming to study in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. First, may I declare an interest? This time last year I was principal of a sixth-form college that educated 120 fee-paying international students. International students are a competitive business. As we have heard, it is effectively an export industry; non-EU students buy a UK education in a fiercely competitive global market. Students who come to the UK are often from influential families in their home country and region. They will return and become leaders of their cities, regions and countries. That they have been educated in the UK disposes them positively towards all things British, and can only assist in the UK’s future global influence and economic prosperity.
I want to focus on the further education sector. More than 20,000 fee-paying international students study at sixth-form and further education colleges. College fee income from international students is more than £42 million a year, and there is additional income from books, food, accommodation and other things. UK plc benefits by at least £80 million a year.
Let me draw on the concerns raised by John Leggott college in my constituency where, as I said, I was principal. The college has excellent results for international students, and has won many awards for its work with them. It has worked with the British Council and others to develop strong relationships in key markets across the world. It has an excellent reputation but—here is the “but”—the British Government’s treatment of visa regulations, the interpretation of those regulations by the UK Border Agency, and their implementation by particular consulates, seriously threatens the college’s international business.
The head of the international centre, Maggie Williamson told me:
“Feedback from agents in China is that the UK visa system is so complicated, daunting and a real obstruction, that most students now don’t even bother thinking about the UK. They just go to the United States without considering the UK, so this has made applications drop dramatically.”
There is a lack of a level playing field between FE and sixth-form colleges, and those independent schools that—quite properly—are also active in the market. Like Jonathan Lord, I call only for a level playing field and for fair treatment for different providers.
Independent schools automatically get highly trusted sponsor status and do not have to pay the £400 registration fee—the relevant information states that they will not have to pay the full burden of highly trusted status. Will the Minister consider whether that is fair and proper in the current market? It sends an unfortunate message to the key markets in which the different bodies are operating.
Independent schools can hold pre-sessional courses for students on the same confirmation of acceptance of study—the CAS form—that is required when students finally join the school. That is not the case for the FE and sixth-form college sector. Having said that, there are practical issues about whether the CAS system is effective, and its operation is worth further scrutiny. The secure English test does not have the same power of insistence for independent schools as it does for the FE and sixth-form college sector. Students who wish to come to the UK have to take a particular exam, such as IELTS—the International English Language Testing System—and the cost of taking it abroad is a disincentive to students who wish to enrol on courses in the UK. There is an uneven, unequal market, and I hope that the Minister will look at that.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Education for enabling and encouraging the UK Border Agency to meet me and representatives from my local college to discuss the issue. The UK Border Agency recognises the absurdity of the situation, but it later said in a letter that it would not change anything. I hope that the Minister can focus on the matter and bring about fair treatment for different types of institution within the market. That would be of great assistance and importance.
Prospective students are currently putting money into banks to come to the UK. They do so in good faith that those banks or financial institutions will be on the list of trusted financial institutions. That list, however, has not yet been published, and students may put money into a bank only to find out later that it is not on the list. I hope that the Minister will ensure protection for students and institutions in such an eventuality. It would be helpful if the Minister considered that practical issue.
Much of the aspiration behind the policy is correct, but I hope that the Minister will look at and respond to concerns about the way in which it is applied, so that it can apply equally and fairly across different types of institution in a way that is practical and allows business to proceed.
Britain needs to be open for business in the student export market. In my opinion, politicians and the Government should be strong enough to shout up for British business, British students and British education. We should not pander to the sometimes hysterical argument and atmosphere around the subject. If we do that, we will export British jobs, the British reputation and future British influence to the more politically savvy parts of the world.
I hope that this excellent debate, in which hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber have engaged in a sensible articulation of concern, brings about a practical way forward that says that Britain is the best place in the world to come to for an international education, and that we will ensure a level playing field for institutions in Britain. We are open for business. Do come and help us to prosper into the future. That is what I hope will happen as a result of the debate.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield on securing the debate and on the comprehensive way in which he set out the wide range of issues that arise from the changes that the Government are making. Other hon. Members have also spoken about those matters, and I will not cover ground that has already been covered. I will focus on two areas of which I have intimate knowledge: my constituency, Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and my area of expertise, science and engineering.
As hon. Members undoubtedly know, Newcastle is a great university town. Newcastle university, in my constituency, was founded in the 19th century by, among others, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong. When my father was a student there in the 1950s, it was known as King’s college, Durham. I do not whether, as a Commonwealth citizen, he required a student visa at the time, but if he did, I am very glad that he acquired one.
My mother was a student at Northumbria university, or Newcastle polytechnic as it was, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown. Born in Newcastle, she certainly did not require a visa, although given that she was in her 50s when she finally got to go to university, a university education was in many ways a foreign country to her.
My point is that Newcastle has a long and proud history of educating a wide and diverse range of students from all kinds of backgrounds and from all over the world. It is therefore not surprising that I feel strongly about this subject. I am proud that Newcastle is a favoured destination of UK and international students. It attracts students from all over the world. Newcastle university has 3,000 international students from more than 110 countries, while Northumbria university has students studying degrees at partner institutions in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Seoul and elsewhere.
Students are therefore a vital part of our economy, contributing much to our businesses, our bars and clubs and our cultural life. Why on earth would we want to put up a sign saying “Do not come and study here”? I am afraid that that is increasingly the impression that we are giving and I will cite two case studies that exemplify that.
First, student A, studying biochemistry, sent the UKBA a request for a certificate of approval in February. Despite faxing and phoning, with the support of my office, for many months, she still has not had her passport back. Her student visa expires in July, and she cannot apply for a new visa without her passport, which the UKBA still has.
The second example is a student who is studying for a doctorate in marine engineering. He is in his final year. He has applied for a visa, which has been refused as the
UKBA states that he should have completed his doctorate by now. However, with his application, he submitted a letter from the university explaining that the external examiner was ill, so it would require some more months to finish. The refusal took no account of the fact that the student had been in Newcastle for six years, with legal visas, paying substantial sums to the university in addition to rent and living expenses in Newcastle.
Those are just two examples of the many cases that my office has had to deal with. They mainly involve students in the middle of degrees or doctoral work, who thus have proven study records and whom the university has decided are able to complete their courses. Often the wording of the refusal has included factors not applicable to the case, showing that a form letter was used, rather than consideration being given to the individual applications. All the students refused visas who contacted my office were studying STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. That may be because Newcastle attracts STEM students. It may be because the UKBA particularly dislikes STEM students. If that is the case, I hope that the Minister will explain why.
The view of those in the university to whom I have spoken and who have contacted me is that the refusals have much more to do with not exceeding quotas than the lack of merit of the individual applications. Why on earth would we do this? There is a shortage of UK and EU STEM students. International STEM students enable departments to have the scale to undertake a wider range of courses and high-quality research in fields that might otherwise be closed down.
As the Campaign for Science and Engineering recently said,
“Nearly 40% of the UK’s scientific output from 2002-2007 involved international collaborations, so it is actually a positive aspect of UK higher education that students are exposed to a diverse peer group from the outset.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, the impact assessment for the proposals that we are discussing has confirmed the huge loss to the economy. It also confirms that the drive to cut overseas student numbers will reduce overall net migration by about 48,000 a year between now and the next general election. I am very afraid that we will lose many of the people whom we do not need or want to lose. We are in a globally competitive environment. Our universities and our country need to be competitive in that environment. We cannot and should not hang up a global “Closed” sign above our universities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield not simply on obtaining the debate, but on the way in which he introduced it. Despite some of the speeches that have been made, this is not an attempt to make a frontal assault on the whole of the Government’s immigration policy. All of us who have taken part in the debate and, I think, every Member of the House of Commons would accept that the bogus college has no place in British society. We should close such colleges down, prosecute those involved in running them and kick out those who have obtained bogus visas. That should be a statement of obvious fact.
What we are talking about here, though, is a recognition that, in the introduction of a relatively new system, haste may have been involved and there may be a need to fine-tune and adjust what already exists. I think that that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central concentrated on and I hope that we can get the Minister to address those issues. Rather unkindly, I will be complimentary to the Minister, as Jonathan Lord was. The Minister is a thoughtful man, and I hope that he will think about the issues that have been raised, because they are important.
Our higher and further education system is a precious national asset economically, but also culturally and in the wider realm of public diplomacy, so it does matter. It matters to all our constituencies. A city such as mine, with a huge educational infrastructure, both in higher education and in further education, depends on it for employment and for the very nature of modern Manchester. Within that context, I will concentrate on three particular aspects of the rules as they are now beginning to apply. These points have been brought to me by individual establishments. I will begin by raising, as other hon. Members have, the issue of a level playing field with respect to private institutions.
The Nazarene theological college, which obviously trains students in areas of theology, has made the point to me that the majority of its students are not visa holders—they do not need to be. It has a limited number of very high level students, mainly PhD students. However, PhD students attending private colleges such as the Nazarene college are treated differently from those who attend our public universities, in that only postgraduate students at universities and Government-sponsored students are able to bring in their dependants—their spouses and children. Often, those studying for doctorates at theological colleges are mature students. Frankly, saying that they must spend three or four years away from their families means that colleges will not be able to attract that kind of high-level student. I hope that the Minister will reconsider, because that college believed that there might be movement in that area. Perhaps that is something that warrants reconsideration.
A couple of institutions, both operating at a high level, have raised with me an issue that I have previously raised with the Minister—the post-study work route. One is the Northern Ballet school, which says that its graduates often do not get the regular paid work that they need; they need work experience if they are to pursue their careers. They will often take on freelance or part-time work, but at the moment that would take them outside the provisions of the post-study work route. Similarly, SSR college, which trains people to degree level, works in conjunction with universities on sound recording, a vital part of modern education. It, too, says that its students, after graduation, often have to look for part-time work, but again that would prevent them from taking the post-study work route.
The next point that I wish to raise in the brief time available has already been put to the Minister—the capacity to revise the impact of the new regime this year. INTO Manchester, which provides a route into higher education, and Manchester Metropolitan university have both raised similar issues with me about existing offers of places. The Minister said that unconditional offers would be honoured but there is the question of conditional offers.
More narrowly, questions have been asked about those people coming on to foundation courses where the language qualification is lower. Students often come to the university over the summer months to begin a part of their language course before going on to the foundation course. The summer is nearly with us, and the problem for these institutions is that they are having to correspond with students at a very late stage to say that they must now get the B1 English qualification, which they are finding too difficult.
My appeal to the Minister is whether, even at this late stage, we can modify the impact of the rules, make them a little more flexible, and recognise that in the longer run we do not want to damage this vital part of our economy and culture; I am sure that the Minister, too, does not want that. We need to refine that process in a way that suits everybody and makes no serious assault on the Government’s immigration policies.
I shall be brief so that the Minister has sufficient time to reply to the debate. I apologise to the House for missing part of the debate. It was the Government’s fault. I was forced to go to the Ministry of Justice to hand in a petition about legal aid; if the Government had not cut legal aid, I would have been here for the entire debate. The Minister may care to mention that to his colleagues.
I welcome the debate. I also welcome the introduction by my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, and the spirit in which the debate has been conducted. All of us represent private sector institutions, which have now fulfilled the requirements put upon them by the previous Government, and that is welcome, or publicly funded universities—in my case, London Metropolitan university. I agree with my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd that none of us is in favour of bogus colleges.
I was often deeply concerned about the way in which overseas students would come to this country and be hoodwinked into going to crummy colleges that did nothing for them, but which certainly exploited them. That did this country more damage than anything else, because those students felt that they had been brought here under false pretences—as indeed they had. They did not succeed in learning much and were often relieved of a great deal of money, only to be disappointed with the performance of the educational institutions. I do not have a problem with the fact that we have a tough regime for the private sector and language schools; we should be clear that they are genuinely offering an education for overseas students. However, what is proposed seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to what is being said about immigration, and it conflates immigration issues with issues about people’s right and need to study. It is damaging the reputation of this country and it is damaging the aspirations of students from other countries.
At some point, most MPs have been on delegations abroad on behalf of Parliament or other organisations. Everywhere we go, we come across people saying, “I studied in Newcastle”—or in Manchester, Birmingham or London—and that they benefited from it and enjoyed it. They are well disposed towards many things about our country—literature, science, engineering, transport systems or whatever it happens to be—and good will is built up as a result. We cannot calculate that good will, but we all know that it exists.
Now, when I go to other countries and talk to younger people about the possibility of studying in Britain, they say, “It’s expensive”—it is expensive—“it’s difficult to get a visa, and the immigration service and the entry system to this country have a very bad reputation.” People do not enjoy the experience, as non-EU nationals, of trying to come through Heathrow, Gatwick, or anywhere else, particularly if they come from Bangladesh, Africa or Latin American countries. They do not like the way in which they are interviewed, or the intrusive questioning that goes with it. A balance has to be drawn, and I am not convinced that we have it correct. I know that this is not related to education, but many tourists that visit Europe leave out Britain. They do not wish to go through the visa business of coming here, so they restrict their tour to France, Germany and the Netherlands.
I represent a constituency that includes London Metropolitan university. It has a huge diversity of students and a great diversity of courses, which I hope it will be able to maintain, but that is for another day. It needs overseas students. The student body needs overseas students. The university has built commendably close relationships with higher education institutions in Russia and Ukraine, as well as in other parts of the world, and it has many overseas students. The overseas students benefit from the quality of the education that they receive and from the experience of being in London, but our students at London Met—mainly local adult students—benefit enormously from their interaction with students from entirely different backgrounds. It is not a one-way street; it is very much a two-way street that is of enormous benefit to our students and to our economy.
I hope that in his response to the debate the Minister will recognise the economic value, the social value and the educational value of overseas students, and not stick with the arbitrary date of
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield on securing the debate. It is a subject that is important to us all, and contributions to the debate from all sides reflected the need to consider the matter seriously. We heard from Back Benchers, members and Chairs of Select Committees, and a former Home Secretary, which shows the importance of the issues that we face.
It is my job to reflect on the issues that have been raised in this debate. There have been a number of recurring themes to which the Minister will want to respond. If he is not able to do so today, I am sure that he will write to hon. Members with detailed answers. Some of the concerns may fall under the responsibility of other Departments.
I was struck by the contributions from the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller) because they reminded the Minister of his obligation to deliver the Conservative manifesto commitment to reduce net immigration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. That commitment may have been watered down slightly in the coalition agreement, but it is, none the less, a millstone around the Government’s neck because it is so difficult to achieve. I understand the debates and discussions around immigration, but I reflect also on the words of my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett. He said that when he was Home Secretary, there were issues that needed to be faced, but the goalposts kept moving. As he said, we tried to do all sorts of things to try to improve the situation.
The recurring themes in this debate on student visas have come from both sides of the House. I hope that we can get away from the partisan approach to immigration and the feeling that anything the previous Government did was completely bad and that the present Government will deliver their target. If we continue in that vein, we will not achieve our joint aim of balanced migration. We all want to ensure that we have in our country the people whom we want, require and need. We must reflect on the fact that the previous Government introduced the UK Border Agency and a whole series of initiatives to try to deal with migration.
I was struck by a point made by my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. He said that part of the problem with migration and immigration issues is the counting in and the counting out of people; it is hard to understand what the facts and figures really are. We have accepted that the previous Government failed to deliver in that regard and we look to support the present Government in their attempts to try to reach a solution to that difficult problem.
Let us put to one side the issue of net migration and how we achieve that and reflect on the issues that we have here today. Student visas and the whole issue around students became a problem when the Home Secretary made a statement on
We then move on to the issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central put so passionately, of the impact that we are having on our higher education sector. The message has gone out to the wider world that Britain is not open for business. We heard about the concerns that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee had to deal with on its visit to China and the 40% reduction in applications to the UK from India. On a recent all-party visit to Azerbaijan, I was told that the Azerbaijanis wanted to work and be involved with the UK, but thought that there problems in relation to how we saw the situation in further and higher education.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on the points that have been raised today about the transitional arrangements, the time that the institutions will need to put in place the scheme and the problems relating to the offers that have been made to individual students. He should reflect, too, on the cost to the country. The hon. Member for Peterborough said that there was no empirical evidence on the financial impact of such a change, and yet the Home Office’s own impact assessment says that the cost to the country will be £2.6 billion or even £3.6 billion.
Foreign students benefit our university and college system in the UK. Hon. Members have talked about how they develop people intellectually, socially and culturally. We are also seeing a higher number of UK students going to universities in America. Our competitors, such as the US and Australia, are taking advantage of our current situation.
In conclusion, the problem of student visas needs to be addressed. We do not view it in a partisan way. We do not want to attack the Government’s immigration policy. We recognise that there must be managed migration and we want to work with the Government in a consensual way to achieve those things. The student visa issue is impacting in a negative way on the private sector and on public colleges and universities and we need to do something about that pretty speedily. If we do not, we throw away something that is a boost to our economy. I am talking about the benefits that foreign students bring to our universities and to our many cities and towns.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on this excellent debate, recognise that there are serious problems that need to be faced and come up with some solutions in the short term that will prevent any further damage to this sector. We need to have more debates on migration and immigration to decide what we can do collectively to resolve the issues.
I have some sympathy with what the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said. He asked whether we should go down the route that the US has determined. I hope that the Minister will reflect on an important debate that has had no partisan input, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
I will follow the good examples of my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller) and Mr Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, in saying that there are clearly macro and micro aspects to this and it is important that we conduct the debate about student visas and tier 4 within the overall context of the Government’s immigration policy.
I should say at the outset that Britain is quite rightly internationally renowned for its top-quality education institutions. Many hon. Members have rightly made that point. The students who choose to study here from across the globe bring numerous cultural, social and economic benefits to the UK and to their own countries when they return. We all acknowledge that and it is certainly acknowledged across Government.
We must recognise that the student visa system had become a broken instrument. It has failed to control immigration and, in many cases, to protect legitimate students—a point that Jeremy Corbyn made. He said that severe damage has been caused. He said that people come here honestly hoping to study and then find that they have been scammed. Bogus colleges are scamming not just the British immigration system but the students who come here.
Student immigration has more than trebled in the past 10 years and is now far larger than the other two main routes of immigration—the work route and the family route. Too many of the people who come here calling themselves students have a primary motivation of working here, and not of receiving a high-quality education. Too many institutions are providing a service that is not about education but immigration. Addressing that issue is at the heart of what we are seeking to do. Many Members from all parties have agreed that it is worth driving out that abuse.
There are endless examples of institutions and “students” working the system to get round language requirements and rights to work, and to bring in dependants. That is not just a small problem; too many colleges provide minimal or no tuition or classroom study. We have students barely able to hold a conversation in English turning up to “study” degree-level courses.
Last year, both Governments—the Labour Government and the coalition Government—were in power. So I hope that I will respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Bradford South about being non-partisan by saying that in 2010 tier 4 visas represented 14% of visas that were issued, but tier 4 visa-holders were responsible for 41% of refusals at ports, in other words actually being turned down by immigration officers. The equivalent figures for tiers 1, 2 and 5 visa-holders were all less than 1%.
We want genuine students coming to Britain to attend courses of high educational value at legitimate and responsible institutions. We need to maintain our international reputation for providing top-quality education, and we want the very best students to stay on in the UK to complete their studies. That is exactly what our proposals are designed to deliver and that is why the Home Secretary announced a comprehensive programme of reform on
Many contributors to the debate have talked about flexibility, including the hon. Member for Sheffield Central. Indeed, to minimise disruption to education providers and students, we are implementing the changes in three stages. The rules for the first stage came into effect on
We continue to have extensive dialogue with the sector about the changes that we are making. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members who are concerned about that that there are numerous and constant contacts at official level and, where necessary, between myself and Universities UK and selected vice-chancellors about these changes, because we want to introduce them in the most practical way possible.
I want to respond to a specific point that was made about the timing of the changes. Mark Lazarowicz read out the letter from the vice-chancellor of a university in his constituency asking if all the changes could be delayed for a year. I should say that when we began to have discussions on them last autumn, we were urged by the universities themselves to get on with them, because we all know that the longer there is any uncertainty in a system, the more people are wary of that system. Various Members have said that the uncertainty that exists is deterring people from making applications and so on. If we allow the uncertainty to continue for another year, I suspect that the results would be worse. So that was the wise advice that I received from the universities last autumn.
I must repeat the basic point that there are so many abuses of the system that we need radical reform. Many colleges seem happy to accept students who do not even meet their own admissions criteria and who speak very little English. In one college, we found that there were two lecturers for 940 students. In another, we found that students were attending classes for just one day a month and working excessive hours for the rest of the time. UK Border Agency enforcement teams recently picked up students who were supposed to be studying at a college in London, but were actually living and working in west Wales; indeed, every student whom we found from that college was doing that.
We are targeting the least compliant students and institutions, and of course that is what we should do. For too long, institutions in parts of the privately funded education sector have been essentially unregulated, yet all the evidence suggests that those institutions pose the biggest risk to immigration control. In a sample of tier 4 students studying at private institutions about which the UKBA had concerns, up to 26% could not be accounted for.
The UKBA has revoked the sponsorship licences of 64 colleges. I hope that that meets the reasonable request of Keith Vaz, who is Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, that the inspection regime should be robust. He said that the UKBA used to phone up institutions in advance to say that its inspectors were coming. As is evident from the number of licences that have been revoked, the enforcement regime is getting better.
I want to turn to the current points-based system. Again in the spirit of non-partisanship, I must say that this Government did not arrive and tear up that system. We said that we could build on it and we accepted the point of having objective ways of measuring who comes to the UK, and that is what we are seeking to do. Under that objective system, a sponsor assesses the intentions and ability of the student; UKBA staff no longer have the power to refuse a migrant entry to the UK on those grounds. We therefore need to make absolutely sure that sponsors are exercising their powers responsibly, and that is one of the things that these reforms are designed to achieve.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. On the points-based system, given that the overall purpose of immigration policy is to reduce net migration, can he confirm that after the introduction of the points-based system in 2007, arrivals of students, dependants and student visitors increased from 370,000 in 2007 to 489,000 by 2009?
Absolutely. Indeed, the numbers were still rising right up until last year. We now have the figures up to the summer of last year and the numbers were still rising at that point. As I was saying, we are building on the points-based system, but we are precisely introducing limits and precisely driving out abuse in the student system. That is why we will move on to other systems, so that we can get the numbers down. The points-based system is not enough on its own, but it is a platform on which we can build.
The Home Secretary announced new reforms that mean that all sponsors must now be vetted by one of the approved inspectorates and all of them must attain the status of highly trusted sponsors. In line with that commitment, we announced earlier this week that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and the Independent Schools Inspectorate would extend their activities to cover privately funded providers. Sponsors must meet our immigration requirements and high standards of educational provision. Institutions that do not meet those requirements are now subject to a limit on the number of students that they can bring in. To stay on the sponsor register in the longer term, they must achieve highly trusted sponsor status no later than April 2012 and gain accreditation by the relevant agency by the end of 2012. The imposition of a limit responds to the urgent need to tackle abuse, allows sponsors time to adjust to the new system and prevents surges in applications from high-risk sectors. We are well on track to delivering a sponsorship system that the public can trust.
We are also raising the bar on entry requirements. All students coming to study degree-level courses must now be able to speak English at an upper intermediate level and others will have to speak English at an intermediate level. If students cannot answer basic questions in English about their course, UKBA officers will refuse them entry at the border. That was another point legitimately made by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. We are now bringing back the power for immigration officers at the border to recognise that someone is obviously, indeed blatantly, incapable of fulfilling the requirements of their visa.
In recognition of our trust in universities, we are flexible about the methods that they use to assess a student’s level of English. That brings me on to a specific point that was made by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central. Let me start by discussing what is, if you like, the biggest transitional issue. That is the English language requirement, which he raised in his introductory speech.
The appropriate level of English for those coming to study at level 6 and above is an upper intermediate level across each of the four disciplines: reading; writing; speaking; and listening. That is level B2 on the common European framework of language. A lower level—B1—is the appropriate level for lower courses, including the pathways courses that many Members have mentioned. Those are courses taken by people coming in who do not have the appropriate level of English but who want to take an English language course in the UK on their way to taking a full university course here. So we have set a lower level of English as a requirement for those students.
In order to get a visa, those outside universities will have to present a test certificate from an independent test provider proving that they have attained the required level. As another flexibility that we have introduced, universities will be able to vouch for a student’s ability if they are coming to study at degree level or above. Indeed, there might be the odd student who cannot meet the requirements for all four disciplines but is so exceptional that we will allow individual requests by university academic registrars.
A number of Members have talked about English language schools. People who want to come to the UK to study lower-level English can do so for up to 11 months through the student visitor route. We introduced that concession after discussions with the English language colleges last autumn, and the colleges have welcomed it.
On the confirmations of acceptance for studies and the visas, the requirements for an offer of a place at a university are separate from the requirements under the immigration rules. Universities could, and should, have assigned a confirmation of acceptance for studies to people who held unconditional offers before
It was mentioned that there are difficulties relating to the English language tests. The UKBA ran a procurement exercise and expanded the list of English test providers to ensure that there was significant capacity, and we are in regular contact with each of the approved test providers, which have demonstrated flexibility in expanding test centre capacity where there is demand. If there are blockages, we are trying hard to remove them.
There has been much inevitable discussion about the impact assessment, and various figures have been cited. I wish to put on the record that the net cost is said to be £2.4 billion. The £3.6 billion is the gross cost, but there will also be £1.1 billion of benefits. The truth about the impact assessment process is that it is in its infancy and is not yet satisfactory. I have spoken to the economists who do the assessments and they agree that the process needs to improve. I do not want to go into the economic theology of what works and what does not work because it is late on a Thursday afternoon, but I shall give one very practical example. The way in which the assessments are carried out requires us to assume that there is a zero displacement effect of students taking jobs on the local labour market. In other words, if a foreign student is doing a job and then leaves, 100% of that economic activity is assumed to be lost. In practical terms, however, it is likely that that person will be replaced by a British student or someone else. Clearly, therefore, the assessments are not satisfactory, and we have asked the Migration Advisory Committee, which is independent of Government, to look at the process over the summer.
The definition of immigration is beginning to vex us, and I am half-tempted to spend a long time discussing whether students should somehow be removed from the definition altogether. There is clearly an academic argument to be had, but I will just make the underlying point that although it would be fantastically convenient for the Minister for Immigration suddenly to discover that hundreds of thousands of people who were regarded as immigrants yesterday would not be regarded as immigrants tomorrow—I would hit my targets with no effort at all—that is not realistic, and I do not think that the public would accept it. In terms of confidence, the point is very well made that immigration statistics are imperfect, particularly regarding counting people in and out, and that is why we have re-let the e-Borders contract. Over the next few years we will develop a much greater ability to count people out as well as in, but it seems sensible to stick to the internationally agreed measurements we have always had, which are used by other countries, rather than apparently try to redefine our way out of what is a serious and difficult political issue.
The other big subject that many Members have mentioned is post-study work, and I am afraid that I will have to agree to differ with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central. The students’ primary motivation should be to study, not to work. The ability to work after finishing a course or, as my hon. Friend Jonathan Lord said, while doing a course, should not be a significant part of the motivation of someone coming here on a student visa. If people want to come here to work, there are work routes, and I do not want them to deceive either us or themselves by saying, “I’m here as a student but what really matters to me—the motivating force—is that I can either work during the course or stay for a couple of years afterwards.” It is simply not the case that everyone who does that gets a graduate-level job. In one cohort that we looked at, of those who were hanging around for the allowed two years after finishing their degrees, about 20% were unemployed, and 50% of those who were employed were in unskilled jobs and not making use of their studies.
No. The problem is that the post-study work route has been abused as much as it has been legitimately used. We are not closing down that route altogether; we are specifically saying, “If you can get a graduate-level job, you can stay.” That seems very reasonable—[Hon. Members: “It is about the salary”]. I thank Members for that. Let me talk about the £20,000 salary that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central suggested was somehow wrong. I have to say, in the gentle spirit of non-partisanship in which I am making this speech, that the £20,000 minimum salary threshold for tier 2 was set by the previous Government, following a recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee in August 2009. At that time, the tier 2 skill threshold was jobs at national vocational qualification level 3, and this Government have now raised that threshold to jobs at NVQ level 4, at which level the case for a salary threshold of at least £20,000 becomes even more compelling.
It was set as a graduate-level salary, and it still is. We have kept that threshold. We have not inflation-linked it, and we have increased the skill level, so, if anything, there is a stronger case for it now.
I have a fascinating answer about accountancy qualifications for the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, but given that there are only three minutes to go I hope that he can hold his interest on that topic and bear to have my reply in writing.
In response to a point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, it is true that initially universities were automatically granted highly trusted sponsor status, but they were all required to apply for the status by the end of June 2010. All applications were considered against the published criteria. I was puzzled that someone said they were confused about the criteria, because they were published. Universities retained highly trusted sponsor status after June 2010 only if they had met all the criteria.
Nic Dakin made a point about independent schools. Independent schools have been afforded greater flexibility simply because of their extremely low levels of non-compliance. They have earned that privilege because they are practically 100% compliant. The requirement for a secure English language test applies to all users of tier 4 general. Independent schools largely use the tier 4 child route, for which there is no English language requirement. That route is also available to sixth-form colleges that recruit 16 and 17 year olds.
There was a question about the list of financial institutions, and I can say that that list will be available on the UKBA website shortly. Chi Onwurah asked about quotas, and I am happy to assure her that there are no quotas for UKBA officials to grant or refuse applications.
Once all the rules have been implemented, I expect the reforms to reduce the number of student visas by about 70,000 a year, and I estimate that at the end of this Parliament there will be about 260,000 fewer student visas and about 100,000 fewer dependants’ visas. Members have raised many practical issues that I have not had time to address, but I will take them away and think about them hard, particularly the individual cases mentioned by Tony Lloyd .
I am of course aware of the importance of international students for British educational institutions and for the UK economy, but I believe that the measures strike the necessary balance.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (