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British Students (Overseas Studies)

Volume 976: debated on Tuesday 18 December 1979

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what his estimate is of the number of British students currently studying at foreign universities.

The most recent estimate of the number of students of United Kingdom origin following courses in universities and institutions of higher education abroad is 16,866. This figure is based on returns made to UNESCO in 1977 by 50 countries.

Is it not a fact that many of those students are subsidised by the Governments of the countries in which they are studying? Is not scholarship international? Should not the Government direct their policy to encouraging all students to come to this country, not just rich students? What does the Minister think of the threat from this policy to institutions like the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine?

The number of foreign students in this country is three or four times higher than the number of our own students abroad. Since the figure of 16,866 includes over 9,000 students in Canada—and that figure is open to doubt—the probable figure for our students abroad is even smaller. The policy of the previous Government was to bring the total of 87,000 overseas students in this country down to about 66,000 by 1981 by a quota method which we did not like. We shall see what happens in relation to applications this year. At the moment they are down by 11per cent. Only one in four of foreign students who applied obtained admission to universities last year. We shall monitor the situation as it proceeds and see how it works out.

Has my hon. Friend any figures on the numbers of foreign students attending universities in this country over the past few years? Has the number dropped?

The number of foreign students in our universities has gone up. In the last full year there were about 49,000 students in universities; 19,000 were post-graduates and 30,000 under-graduates. The figure has consistently increased over the past 10 years.

Has the Minister seen my correspondence with the Secretary of State pointing out the position of refugee students in this country who have neither a Government, nor in some cases families, to support them? Will the Government give special consideration to refugee students who are different from the general run of overseas students?

I take the point made by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes). Refugee students are different. This has been a problem for a number of years. There was a problem with Kenyan Asians and Ugandan Asians. There is now a problem with the Vietnamese boat people. I have discussed this problem twice with refugee organisations and we hope to be able to do something about refugees. It is a separate, and I believe more important, problem than that of foreign students generally.

Will my hon. Friend make it quite clear that the problem is two-fold? Does he agree that it is not just a matter of saving £100 million on subsidies to foreign students, a quarter of whom come from countries with a national income higher than our own? Is it not a fact that the foreign student population has trebled in the past 10 years and that successive Governments have tried to control the numbers of foreign students? This is quite apart from the expense of having them here.

I accept what my hon. Friend says. It is interesting to note that other Governments are taking similar measures. Australia has increased its fees for foreign students. It has made it clear that foreign students are acceptable only if similar courses are not available in their own countries. New Zealand has also increased its fees and is limiting the number of foreign students. I heard last week that even the Philippines Government are taking similar action.

Is the hon. Member yet aware of the implication of his policy of full cost fees for British students, what- ever the effect is on overseas students? Has the Minister read the comments by Professor Sims, the vice-chancellor of Sheffield university, in which he describes the Minister as being pitifully ignorant on these matters? Does the Minister understand that the unanimous opinion of vice-chancellors, as well as of Lord Boyle, is that it is essential for the sake of the survival of many courses, and perhaps even of some universities and colleges, that the policy be reversed?

Certain courses are being maintained almost solely for foreign students. The majority of the cost is borne by the British students who take those courses. I have had much correspondence from university vice-chancellors. As a result of a meeting with those vice-chancellors, a postgraduate scheme for research students was suggested. Some years ago the university vice-chancellors suggested that there should be a limitation on the numbers of foreign students.