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Students (Underdeveloped Countries)

Volume 15: debated on Monday 14 December 1981

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28.

asked the Lord Privy Seal what progress has been made by his Department in providing assistance through overseas aid to enable students from underdeveloped countries to be educated at British universities.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office told the House last March, we are making additional funds available this year to restore to the levels of 1978 and 1979 the number of new awards available under our training programme for the Governments of developing countries. In 1980–81 there were about 3,900 new awards and in the current year the number is expected to exceed 4,600.

Were the Minister and his Department consulted over the amazing decision on overseas student fees, whereby foreign and Commonwealth medical students are being charged £6,000 a year this year, while students coming from the EEC or the French overseas territories are paying only about £900? In view of this ridiculous situation, will the Minister give an assurance that underdeveloped countries in the Commonwealth will continue to get increased aid to help their students to come to Britain?

Yes. The developing countries concerned are able to use part of their development aid for education. As I have just said, we hope to have 4,600 new awards this year. In 1980 there were over 14,000 students under the aid programme in Britain, which was exactly the same number as in 1978.

Does the Minister agree that his answer in regard to the multi-fibre arrangement and the difference in fees that have to be charged in Britain to students from the French overseas départments and the Commonwealth show that the House and the British Government have no control over either matter? Will he make representations about these matters to his right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary, bearing in mind that people in Britain are fearful of the extent of the erosion of the powers of this House by the EEC?

My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs always reads Hansard in respect of the questions that I answer, and he will read the hon. Gentleman's very sage observations. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science told the House on 23 November that the Government are committed, in common with other member States, to promoting student mobility within the Common Market. It is as a result of our membership of the Common Market that this has happened. I think that it is within the memory of hon. Members that this was not a matter of which I, and one or two others, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, approved at the time.

Does the Minister accept that last year's decision by the Government to reduce the amount of money available for overseas students and the introduction of full cost fees have been disastrous for many students in underdeveloped countries? Does he not accept that, even if enlightened and humanitarian reasons should not prevail, in terms of our self-interest it has been a disastrous decision to introduce full cost fees and that we ought to reverse that decision and include more people from those countries in our educational institutions so that courses at universities in Great Britain will not have to close?

I do not think that the policy has been disastrous. There is no question of a return to the earlier general subsidy for all overseas students. If the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to read what I said in my previous answers, he would understand that it has not been quite as disastrous as he has made out. Commonwealth students alone predominated by a ratio of 2:1.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the matter to which my lion. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) referred is a preposterous situation that demands the collective attention of the Government to get it put right in negotiation with our Common Market partners?

Yes, it is a question for the whole Government. An interdepartmental group of officials are monitoring the impact of increased fees on overseas student numbers. It has done it for one year, and it is doing it for a second year.

Was the interdepartmental group consulted about the decision last week, when the home student fee was halved, thus doubling the subsidy to EEC students and increasing the differential, making the position far worse than that suggested by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor)? Was the Minister consulted about the decision taken last week to increase the differential between Commonwealth students and EEC students?