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Immigration Policy (Language Schools)

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. This important topic is causing great concern among the hard-working people in language schools up and down the country. First, I will say something about how important these schools are, and then I will do a little geographical tour to show how important English language schools and centres are to certain areas. At that point, hon. Members might like to make brief interventions, and then we can perhaps touch on immigration policy.

There are 600,000 foreign students who are in the UK to learn English, and over 400,000 are in the 435 centres of English UK. That generates £1.5 billion of foreign earnings for the UK economy. Better than that, there is great potential for growth. We are still leaders in the area; there is stiff competition from Australia and many other places, but it is an area which, over recent years, has shown and can potentially show growth. Given our nation’s current economic circumstances and the value of the pound, it is an area which, if nurtured and encouraged, could generate significantly more jobs.

Many of these businesses are family businesses. In my constituency, we have the Wessex Academy, which has been going for 38 years. It was founded by the father of Andrew Doran, who is the current principal. Like many other businesses, a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears—to use the phrase of a former great Prime Minister—has gone into building up these businesses, and a lot of hard work has been undertaken to encourage students in a competitive international market.

Language schools are very important because, according to the recent survey, 52 per cent. of their students either go on to study for professional qualifications or go to UK universities. That provides a major income for our universities. In our universities in 2007-08, 229,640 students were from outside the EU, generating a fee income of £1.87 billion—about 8 per cent. of the income for UK universities. That is a very important factor.

More importantly for the language schools—apart from the fee income—many of the students stay with local families. We know the tax break of £4,800 that families can get. Many families in my constituency not only have students staying with them but had the parents of those students staying with them 20 years ago when they came to the UK to learn English. That is of major importance to many of the centres where there are English language schools, which are fairly geographically defined. Many hon. Members in this Chamber represent areas where there are many language schools.

The income is significant. The local tourism people in Poole estimate that for every £1 million-worth of foreign exchange earned by the language schools, 22 local jobs are created. We have had many debates on the difficulties of coastal towns, where language schools tend to be prevalent. One industry that those towns can grow and create jobs with is language schools. Therefore, anything that the Government do that makes their position more difficult will cause problems, especially for the more geographically isolated. At this point, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper), who is chairman of the all-party group on English language teaching.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this brief but important debate. Brighton and Hove has the full range, from English language schools to two universities, for which foreign students—overseas students—are essential. Has the hon. Gentleman, like me, had an opportunity to read the excellent submission to the review, prepared by English UK, which not only sets out the dangers to the education system in this country of the changes proposed, but offers alternative ways of dealing with suspected visa abuse?

I did look at that submission; I would draw it to the Minister’s attention. We do not have time to go into the detail of it today, but it was very constructive and made alternative suggestions about how we can deal with the abuse of the system. I know how important education in all its forms is to the Greater Brighton area, and that many other hon. Members, who represent areas not too far from Brighton, take an interest in such matters.

Does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of this debate lies the problem that exists in his constituency and mine and all over the country, which is that this excellent part of our education system will be dragged into disrepute by the large number of over-stayers who will be able to come and abuse it?

We all want firm and fair immigration policies and we have to deal with abuses. We should not do so in a way that causes problems for legitimate businesses, jobs and the income that is generated.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing this enormously important debate, and I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper). Is there not a real danger that a signal will go round the world that somehow these students are not welcome here? That would be disastrous. This issue is enormously important not only to coastal towns but to Oxford, which has a number of high-quality language schools. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are a very important source of income for the host families as well.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Of course, Oxford is one of the major centres. We must bear in mind those competing with English language schools. At the moment, many agents are not sure what to do. They are dealing with students who may come in March, the summer or the autumn, but are not sure whether they should send them to the UK or elsewhere. Therefore, even the process of having a review can cause difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman has a long history of taking an interest in this matter and particularly of considering regulation and accreditation of language schools.

The Bournemouth and Poole area is very important for language schools, and it would be wrong of me not to allow my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), to intervene.

My hon. Friend will know very well that the Bournemouth and Poole conurbation produces some £200 million for our local economy. The real problem is that the changes come in so quickly. The previous change was only seven months ago. That alone has cost the Bournemouth business school, for example, £315,000 in the past year. If that was carried on, the revenue loss for that college alone would be more than £2.9 million. Such losses are unsustainable. Unless something is done, thoroughly reputable large language schools in our constituencies and elsewhere will go to the wall.

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which is very close to our constituents.

London, of course, has language schools, but not such a concentration; they are a bit more diffuse. I talked about the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) the other day, and I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is in his place.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. My hon. Friend is right. The schools in London may be more diffuse, but in pockets of London, such as Wimbledon, there is a thriving language school sector. The point that he makes about the local economy of Poole is also true in Wimbledon, particularly in relation to the large number of host families. Some 60 or 70 host families have written to me about the economic change that would take place for them and the school.

Does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of this there are two problems for the Government? First, they are using a very small number of circumstances to make a wider point, which is wrong for the formulation of policy. Secondly, if we consider what many of the language schools do, which is to teach the English language to beginners, we see that the hurdle being set is the wrong one.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I talked a moment ago about areas that are slightly isolated geographically, and I would include Torquay and Torbay, where my parents had their honeymoon.

Perhaps I can enter this cross-party consensus. I cannot over-emphasise to the Minister the vital trickle-down effect of the money that goes into the household budgets of host families. That is particularly important in low-wage areas such as mine.

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I hope that the Minister now appreciates how important this industry is for our constituents and for those who benefit from the courses.

To move on to immigration policy, seven months ago we had major changes. They were always going to be phased in. We know that there are some problems—clearly, the Government’s migration adviser has made a number of points about that—and we know that there are some loopholes, which particularly relate to south China. What people do not understand is why suddenly we have this very quick review, taking four or five weeks to get the information in, and with possible decisions being made very quickly, when all the parts of the changes seven months ago have not yet been introduced in the system. I also understand that in February next year the IT system kicks in. People are a little perplexed that this has come out of the blue, and they are worried about where the Government are going with this policy.

The matter on which the Government are consulting would have dire implications for many of the schools. As many as 50,000 students could end up not being able to come to the UK, resulting in a loss of hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of foreign exchange and in those people not feeding through to the university sector. If we stop people coming in for technical education, that will have an impact on technical colleges. Taking the wrong decisions at this point would have many consequences—for language schools, for foreign exchange and for jobs. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he confirm whether the IT system is still on track to be introduced in February?

Things can be done. We can tighten up immigration policy without having a blanket change that affects every single language school. I have had the following points made to me. If there is a problem with certain countries, why not seek a solution on a country-by-country basis, rather than on a blanket basis? If there is a problem with the practice by individual education centres, why not address it centre by centre, rather than on a blanket basis? Why not introduce greater controls in terms of the proof of funds that student visa applicants must show? Why not introduce the payment of fees in advance? As we know, people have fiddled their bank statements to show that they have significantly more money than they actually have. Allowing people to provide a deposit or some money towards courses—certainly towards non-degree courses—would be one way around the problem. We could also introduce independent testing of students’ English language competence when they apply for their UK student visa.

I cannot emphasise more that introducing a blanket measure could have a dire effect on businesses.

Let me just support what my hon. Friend is saying. In Bournemouth, the British Study Centres Group, which turns over £4.2 million, has a high proportion of students from Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Students from those countries are not likely to overstay or to make false applications. What we are talking about is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend.

Even the measure to restrict the work that students can do, which the Government are consulting on, could have a big impact. If we introduced such a measure, only wealthy students would be able to come to the UK. Many students come here from, for example, Kazakhstan and Colombia because they need English and want to improve themselves. They do not have the benefit of massive state funds, so they are motivated to take a local job. Reducing working from 20 hours to 10 hours or fewer would therefore be detrimental and a great problem. Indeed, Tony Blair was one of the individuals who promoted the current arrangements to allow some poorer students back into the UK. Many of the things that are being consulted on will therefore cause a problem for schools.

Not allowing in people for pre-university courses will also have geopolitical ramifications. More than 15,000 of the students who come here for pre-university foundation courses in English are funded by the King Abdullah scholarship programme in Saudi Arabia. If we start introducing blanket proposals, there may be diplomatic consequences for some of our friends around the world, who want their students to come here to benefit from a good education and to help sustain good relations with the United Kingdom.

I do not have time to do the subject justice. I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to meet 12, 13 or 14 MPs and representatives of language schools tomorrow afternoon so that we can continue this conversation. However, I urge him not to pursue blanket policies, to be specific where there are problems and, most importantly, to get the review team to work with the education sector and its representative bodies to find alternative proposals that promote firm and fair immigration control, which we are all in favour of, without causing widespread, indiscriminate damage. That is the great risk in what we are discussing today. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Benton, as one of the most senior Chairmen—if not the most senior Chairman—in our House.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for securing this timely debate, which gives me an opportunity to calm some nerves. At 3 pm tomorrow, in Committee Room 13, we will be having the meeting that he requested of me for hon. Members who are interested in this subject. That is important. I have never refused a request for a meeting with a Member of Parliament and I hope I never do.

Let me give hon. Members a personal reassurance about what I intend. I examined language colleges in Bournemouth and Poole in 1987, when I made a documentary on behalf of unregulated students. Aside from winning an award for my production team, I learned two things: first, regulation of the sector was desired by genuine colleges because some students were being exploited; and secondly, the sector’s importance to the UK economy is significant. It is, or was at that time, the UK’s seventh-largest export in economic terms—indeed, it was more important than textiles to the balance of payments, and I suspect that it is even more important now.

The hon. Gentleman’s local authority and the authority in Bournemouth pursued a deliberate strategy of introducing language students to bring younger people into the constituencies, which were described in the national press at the time as being the oldest in the country. I always thought that there would be advantages in that regard to being the local Member of Parliament. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman a personal assurance that I understand deeply the importance of the issue.

Let me explain what the Government are doing and provide some reassurance. The hon. Gentleman asked some important questions, one of which was why we are conducting a review so early. We introduced tier 4 in March to give the sector advance notice for the freshers intake in the autumn. I may need to do some tweaking and I want to be able to do that in good time for the new applications next year. That is why the review is to be short and quick. As the hon. Gentleman accepts, we are playing a cat-and-mouse game, and my responsibility is immigration control.

The hon. Gentleman seeks a reassurance that the review understands the sector’s importance, and I can give him that. The review is being undertaken with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the further and higher education sector and the UK Border Agency. We needed to make the review short and sharp to try to address the issues.

The most important thing that I want to say is that we are not talking about proposals. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper), suggested that there were proposals, but we are talking about a consultation—an open-minded consultation. I am trying to refine the immigration system for students so that it protects the sector and provides for strong and robust immigration controls.

I take the Minister’s point that these matters are out for consultation. Unfortunately, the speed with which the review was announced and the lack of any background information accompanying that announcement have sent shockwaves through the sector. Many people, including the well over 100 representatives of host families in my constituency, are convinced that these are proposals. Greater thought should have been given to the way in which the review was presented.

I take my hon. Friend’s point. However, the review needed to be short and sharp. We needed to balance the need for proper consultation with people who know what they are talking about with the precise need not to damage the sector. I have described this as a cat-and-mouse game, and I will give some examples of why we had to take the approach that we have taken.

The introduction of the points-based system with the sponsor-licensing system resulted in the closure of about 2,000 organisations that were clearly not providing decent and proper education and that were exploiting students, who had often paid for non-courses. Crucially—I ask hon. Members to take this point on board—the best way in which we can protect the reputation of decent providers of education to foreign students is by removing the non-decent providers. I need to do that if we are to ensure that the system is robust and that our qualifications are the best in the world, as I believe they are. That is difficult, but my purpose is immigration control, not the diminution of the sector, and I hope that that provides some reassurance. As I said, we have flushed out 2,000 organisations.

Let me reassure hon. Members about the Government’s understanding of the importance of the sector. The British Council estimates that overseas students’ fees directly and indirectly benefit this country by £8.5 billion. The use of the English language as the predominant language of business and commerce around the world is in my view one of this country’s greatest assets, other than its people. It is important that we understand that: it is why protecting the reputation of the colleges is so important. Of course we understand that the technical standards, language, culture and understanding in the different sectors benefit this small trading nation immeasurably, over and above that £8.5 billion.

We believe that the new sponsorship system, in which responsibility is put on the organisation—the college providing the service—better enables us to manage migration in the sector. I also want to reassure hon. Members that, since the introduction of the points-based system, the number of overseas students coming to Britain has gone up, not down, despite the worries of the United Kingdom Council for International Student Affairs, which has raised some points.

On that point, did the Minister hear on the BBC the other day the senior immigration officer who said:

“We have an awful lot of students who have been refused five, six, even up to nine visas to come here to this country, whether it be for working holidays or student applications, and they’re now coming here”?

Is not it true that, with the best will in the world, the points-based system is not working in this case?

The hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about the subject, makes an important point from the point of view of controlling migration. If I may make a partisan point, it is that a cap on immigration, were it to include tier 4 and short-term student visitors, would decimate the sector, and higher education as well. I have not heard from the Opposition Front Bench team, whose members are not here, whether the cap should apply to students. I should be interested in the answer to that question, because if the cap does not apply, it renders the policy meaningless in terms of reducing net migration, bearing in mind that immigration is defined independently by the Office for National Statistics on the basis of people who come to the country for 12 months or more. That includes significant numbers of overseas students. Thus, the policy of the Opposition is not commensurate with the intention of the hon. Member for Poole. I made my partisan point not to buy time but to make a political point, which no doubt we shall hear more about over the next few months.

To return to the important policy area that we are discussing, the system has resulted in a cat-and-mouse game. We experienced significant increases in the number of applications for student visas from four countries—Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal. The hon. Member for Poole made a strong point about whether we could take a country-by-country rather than blanket approach. We have acted to close down applications in those cases, particularly in the case of an office in south China. I suspended applications there because clearly something untoward was happening.

I needed the review to produce the changes—if there are to be any—to make the system more robust. I want the action to be short and sharp to deal with exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made. It is only right that we should do that. The hon. Member for Poole asked whether we could proceed centre by centre. The sponsoring system allows us to that, and the message that he and other hon. Members of all parties should take back to their constituents is that we want to protect the reputation of the proper institutions, and the team that we have from the two relevant Departments understands that.

It is important to consider the questions in the review. It asks—it does not make a proposal—whether we should raise the bar on the minimum level of study; and whether we should consider the point that the hon. Member for Poole made about English language and how we test it. The United Kingdom Border Agency makes English language requirements in visa applications in many cases. It is a policy that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and others have supported. We pay particular attention to the accreditation and we are grateful to Cambridge ESOL and the International English Language Testing System for their work. We look at the relationship between vocational study and work, because the question of access to working rights for students—both part-time work and work through vocational courses—relates directly to abuses or intended abuses of the immigration system, and we need protection in that context as well.

We need also to think about dependants’ rights. In some posts there has been a significant increase in the number of applications for entry visas for dependants of students, which again suggests using the policy advocated by the hon. Member for Poole of a country-by-country and centre-by-centre approach. However, do we need to do anything in the rules for tier 4 at the higher education and further education levels? Those are the questions that we have been asking.

I believe that the introduction of tier 4 has been a success. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) asked about that. I remind him that before, in the old system, there was very little objectivity. There were subjective decisions, which resulted in significant numbers of appeals, and of course there was no check on the intention of the student and whether the student visa application was intended not for study but for entry into the United Kingdom with a view to a permanent stay. It is the breaking of the link between temporary admission and the automatic right to permanent settlement that is at the core of our immigration policy. I know that the hon. Gentleman supports that.

The challenge that the House faces is how to carry that policy out without damaging—indeed, while protecting—the reputation of our language sector and further and higher education sectors. I reassure hon. Members that the consultation questions are questions, not proposals. That is why we have gone about things in a short sharp way. We thought that that was right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East made a valid point about whether the review itself would damage the reputation of the sector. I hope not—it is not intended to do so. That is why it is happening now, before Christmas, and why it is being done quickly. It is also why I am keen to listen to the views of hon. Members, who have the interests of their constituents and the United Kingdom at heart. There is a cross-party view on the matter, which relates broadly to the south coast of England, but is not exclusive to it. My experience is that it would be foolish of any Government to ignore the south coast of England.

I indicated that there are exceptions, although I wonder whether I needed to be reminded of the importance of Oxford. I wish that all the organisations that applied for a sponsor licence and that had the word “Oxford” in their names were actually in Oxford. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could get intellectual property rights to the name. He would be well served by doing that.

I think that I have answered all the questions that the hon. Member for Poole raised and I have tried to explain the approach that we are taking. Perhaps I may abuse my position by re-advertising tomorrow’s meeting. Many people in this important sector will listen to the debate, and I want to reassure them that our intention is robust immigration control, which we believe will be to the benefit of the sector’s reputation. We are also keen to make any changes that are needed to protect that immigration policy in a way that is commensurate with the protection and promotion of that valuable sector.

Will the Minister confirm the venue of the meeting? Is it Room W4? I thought I heard him say something else.

It is in Committee Room 13—a number that I hope is not significant.

I could have gone into more detail, but I suspect that right hon. and hon. Members wanted to know the Government’s intentions. I hope that I have provided an explanation of those intentions. There are some difficult questions, including about the interface between the further and higher education sectors and about temporary and permanent residence.

Finally, a useful piece of information is that tier 4 does not cover short-term student visitors coming for six months or less. Many of the institutions that the hon. Member for Poole is concerned about are in that sector and are not affected.