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Higher Education (Student Visas)

Volume 523: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate the impact on higher education of the proposed changes to tier 4 immigration rules, otherwise known as visas for students. The importance of this issue was drawn to my attention by my constituent, Professor Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the university of East Anglia, who is chairing the Universities UK taskforce on this issue and who, like the Minister for Immigration, has recently given evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs inquiry on the subject. I should remind the House at the outset that the UK punches above its weight in this area: we have one in 100 of the world’s population, but seven in the top 200 of the world’s best universities.

Let me start by making a couple of basic observations. First, some people will perhaps be surprised—I certainly was—to learn that proper, genuine students are seriously considered to be part of the migration figures at all. Certainly, students must be subject to proper controls and have visas—student visas—but since they are self-evidently a transient population who come to this country to study, and who spend money in doing so, and who then leave when their studies are over, it is not immediately obvious why they should be considered as migrants. There is of course an issue—a very real issue—to do with whether students actually leave and, more to the point, whether those who call themselves students are nothing of the kind but in essence migrants by a different name, playing the system to come to this country for the purposes of long-term settlement. I will come to that later, but for now let me just say that students who come from overseas to this country genuinely to study should not in my view be properly understood as migrants, in the sense that they come here to stay and settle, that by being in this country for a given period of years they somehow acquire rights to stay that they did not have at the outset, or that they are somehow the source of political anxiety about immigration—they are not. They come here, they pay significant sums into our economy, they study, they eat, they drink and then they leave.

My second observation is that I have noticed that some people talk about this issue as a political problem. “I know there is a political problem,” they say, and they mean by that that this Government came to office saying that they would sort out immigration; they said that net immigration was too high and the figures would have to be reduced; and that that was the political reality that must be faced. The result is a clampdown—or potential clampdown—on visas.

One hears stories about eminent and hyper-qualified people, including some of the world’s foremost jurists and scientists, being unable to come to the UK to work, although without having personal experience of each such story one never knows for sure how true they are. I can say, however, that in my constituency I have encountered a Japanese paper conservator qualified to postgraduate level in both western and eastern conservation techniques who has had to leave the country because of the new rules. On hearing such stories, people say, “That’s not what we mean. We don’t want to exclude those who are going to help the country.” I think of what my constituents say to me on the issue. They have never said, “Let’s make sure we exclude the highly skilled—those with something to offer and who are going to help the country.”

The political problem in respect of immigration is quite different. My constituents are sick to the back teeth of people cheating when they want to migrate to this country—of people playing the system, and being more interested in what they can get from this country, including our benefits and health service, than in what they can contribute. My constituents hear stories about cheating, and they believe that at least some of them are true and they want it stamped out. For most fair-minded people, that is what lights the blue touch-paper in respect of immigration. There is not any desire to keep out those who will help us or those who want to study.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman both on securing the debate and on having sat through the entire Select Committee sitting this morning. He will have heard every single witness, including the Minister and the representative of Migrationwatch UK, say that they have nothing against genuine students coming here, but that the people they are against are bogus students at bogus colleges.

I was particularly interested to hear Sir Andrew Green of Migrationwatch UK, who I have always thought is a very articulate spokesman on these matters, say that he was interested in bogus students, bogus applicants, bogus colleges and genuine students who overstayed, because those categories contribute to net migration, but that he would welcome more genuine overseas students, as he thinks that is good for the country and the economy.

My fear is that genuine overseas students have been caught up in all this, so let me say how pleased I am that the Government have taken steps to deal with bogus colleges. The Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a useful report on that issue in 2009 and I gather from the Minister’s evidence to the Committee today that some 58 colleges have had their status revoked and the Government have taken compliance action against a further 235, which may lead to suspension or revocation of status. I applaud those excellent and worthwhile moves. Nobody has a stronger interest in seeing bogus colleges put out of business than legitimate providers. I should add that the Committee’s previous recommendation to restrict by law the use of the word “college” is a good one that Ministers should take seriously.

There is no place for bogus colleges or bogus applicants; nor is there any place for genuine applicants who overstay. We should have clear rules that everyone understands and that are enforced. If we deal with the bogus colleges, the cheats, the bogus applicants and those who fiddle the system, a great deal of the heat—the political problem about immigration—goes away. At that point, we face chiefly not a political problem, but a much more entrenched and difficult economic problem. We are all living through the consequences of the worst financial crash for a century or more. We know that this will be very painful and that severe belt-tightening will take place, and we have seen the Government make a start on that. We all know that any Government would have had to do the same. We know that we have to rebalance the economy away from its heavy dependence on financial services and have much healthier growth in other sectors.

We know that in Norfolk as well as anywhere does in the UK, because Norfolk is poised for significant growth in other areas of the economy, particularly once we get the dualling of the A11 completed, which I am pleased the Government have agreed. Norfolk is poised to help that rebalancing and not only through tourism, agriculture and high value-added food production, in which East Anglia has excelled, because there is a broader potential for growth. For example, Norwich is home to a cluster of internationally renowned research organisations in health and life sciences.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for a great many universities across the United Kingdom—particularly Queen’s university in Belfast—students on visas are very important to research and development and to contact with companies? That potential needs to be realised. Does he feel that the coalition Government can make changes to ensure that the students who have the right to be in this country can make a contribution to universities and, thus, secure development?

I certainly hope so. I hope that the Government understand, if they had not already, that two in five PhDs undertaken in this country are undertaken by overseas students. Damage that and we damage the research base of this country.

More than 2,500 scientists are working at the John Innes centre near Norwich, the Institute of Food Research, the Sainsbury Laboratory, the Genome Analysis Centre and the university of East Anglia cluster, which together form the Norwich research park. That is the largest concentration of food and plant scientists in Europe. The IFR was recently ranked in the top two of 36,000 worldwide research organisations for the influence and citation of its research.

UEA also has a growing medical school and a renowned school of environmental studies. Other growing sectors include offshore and other renewable energy, including tidal, biomass and biofuel energy production. In advanced engineering the area has more than 1,000 engineering companies, employing a skilled work force of about 10,000 people, which trade around the world with the likes of Boeing, Airbus, NASA and Toyota. Group Lotus, which is based in my constituency, is developing the next generation of high-performance cars using renewable energies, as well as being the catalyst for a large cluster of advanced automotive engineering businesses along the A11 corridor. Almost every Formula 1 team is supported by engineers based in Norfolk or is using engineering invented in the county.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. This is a very competitive area because there are other countries, other language centres, and other colleges and universities to go to. Unless we get rid of the uncertainty, we will lose millions of pounds and thousands of students.

My hon. Friend is right because the uncertainty is already proving damaging, particularly on the language issue, as I will discuss in a second. In East Anglia, we see around us the huge potential for a new rebalanced economy that places relatively less emphasis on financial services and has growth in all these other sectors. We have the potential for a golden triangle between Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich, where BT Martlesham has its own electrical generating capacity, because it uses more electricity for computing power than many small towns.

Where is the role of the universities in all this? It is nothing short of crucial. As the Minister knows, we need more skilled people—all Governments talk about the need for more skills. Our education system produces far too many people who are not equipped to go further, which was the subject of this afternoon’s Second Reading debate. Some people cannot study at university, because they do not have the basics in English, maths and science. We have a shortage of science and maths teachers, which is being made worse by a vicious circle: not enough students reaching the basic standard; not enough students studying those subjects at A-level; not enough good people therefore applying to university to study those subjects; and accordingly not enough graduates to become teachers to help solve the problem.

What is helping to break that vicious circle? The answer is overseas students. In many STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—courses are viable only due to the substantial proportion of enrolments from outside the UK and the EU. If we get all this wrong, we will damage the possibility of our economy recovering and rebalancing away from an over-dependence on financial services. One need only look to the United States to see the enormously important role of a vibrant university sector in driving economic growth.

In 2009, a study by the Kauffman Foundation on the impact of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which analysed the economic effect of MIT alumni-founded companies and their entrepreneurial ecosystem, concluded that if the active companies founded by MIT graduates were to form an independent nation, their revenues would make that nation at least the 17th largest economy in the world. The state comptroller of New York has estimated that college and student spending directly or indirectly provides nearly 500,000 jobs and generates more than $62 billion of economic activity. The comptroller of public accounts in the state of Texas has estimated that every dollar invested in the state’s higher education system eventually returns $5.50 to the Texas economy.

Why are those American comparisons interesting? The United States is the most successful higher education market in the world. It is No. 1, but which is No. 2? Where is the second-favourite destination?

The university of Liverpool has 3,000 international students, who generate not only £30 million of income for the university but a positive, knock-on effect for our local economy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we do not ensure that those students can come to the UK, we will see, at a time when we are seeing cuts to our university budgets, massive impacts on local economies?

When funding is tricky, universities are rightly looking for other sources of income—indeed, the Government have told them to do so.

As I was saying, we are the second-biggest education market in the world.

I will not give way. I am sorry, but I must make some progress, because I must leave time for the Minister to answer and this is only a half-hour debate.

The UK higher education sector is a major export in a market that is set to grow rapidly. Professor Steve Smith of Universities UK told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that higher education is by some estimates the seventh largest export sector in the UK—others have put it as high as the third largest—and the market is growing by 7% a year. As the Home Secretary has pointed out, the combination of international fee income and personal off-campus expenditure by international higher education students alone already approaches £5 billion. That has become a vital income stream for universities and for the wider economy.

As I have mentioned, Professor Edward Acton told the Home Affairs Committee:

“In a tricky funding period, most universities plan to expand international numbers in the immediate future. The ability to do so reflects and enhances the performance and reputation of UK HE internationally: it is a Performance Indicator in international league tables. Culturally, the international student presence is key to ensuring our Home students prepare for and excel in a global graduate market”.

The UK’s international alumni provide a healthy anglophile network among public and private decision makers in every one of our trading partners. The key question for universities is whether the Government intend to promote or restrict our recruitment of bona fide non-EU students in higher education. As Professor Acton stated in his submission to the Home Affairs Committee:

“The answer might seem obvious, so forthright are No. 10, the Foreign Office and BIS on the matter and so vast are the economic, financial and cultural benefits to universities and the country.”

The Foreign Secretary announced in January that

“as British Ministers fan out across the world in the months to come we will be promoting British education as well as our economy as a whole.”

On his recent Asian trip, the Prime Minister emphasised

“how much we want to welcome international students to Britain”

and that international students are a

“great way of forming a partnership between our countries”.

Professor Acton and Universities UK fear that the UK Border Agency is set on a course which, if it is not altered, will drastically reduce legitimate higher education recruitment with a grave threat to pre-university pathway courses, which produce an income for universities of £1 billion a year. It is very important at this point to distinguish, as Professor Acton does in his paper, between sub-degree courses and pre-university pathway courses.

The Minister will know that the international passenger survey is deeply flawed and that the Treasury Committee said three years ago that it was not fit for purpose if that purpose was to play a central role in estimating international migration. I urge him to continue engaging with the universities sector, which has offered to pay for speedy research to provide the conclusive cross-check suggested by Professor Acton in his paper. We cannot wait for several years while e-Borders gets sorted—we need action sooner than that. The Select Committee has explored these matters in depth and raised many interesting issues, such as the role of accreditation bodies and whether they should be merged, the place of post-work study and the requirement or otherwise to return to one’s home country. However, I shall not dwell on those issues because there is precious little time left.

I shall concentrate on just two issues, the first of which is pre-university pathway courses. Yesterday, I visited the highly impressive £38 million INTO building at the university of East Anglia, which provides pathway courses for 700 students each year, half of whom go on to study for degrees at UEA and about half of whom go on to university studies elsewhere. That aspect of university provision is now a critical part of the international offer. Many countries do not have the equivalent of a second-year A-level and their students simply are not ready to start a university degree course without further preparation. In providing such preparation, universities such as UEA are taking a sensible entrepreneurial step to safeguard their future growth and to help safeguard the UK’s higher education market and make sure that it prospers.

The second issue, which relates to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), is the importance of the English language in the mix. At a time when French universities have started offering university courses in the English language because of the richness of the potential English-language instruction market, I need hardly stress how important it is for the UK not to damage inadvertently that market in the UK. I can speak personally for the adage that there is no place to learn a language as good as the country concerned. I was a student in Berlin, where I attended lectures in English and German, and I acquired a new respect for any student studying overseas in a language that is not their mother tongue. That is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do without help. We are spoilt in the UK because English is the world’s language of business and academia. We are so used to hearing a high standard of English among educated northern Europeans such as Swedes, Germans and Dutch—at the B2 standard or higher—that we assume it is easily attainable, but it is not. Those countries have invested a huge amount over many years to get to where they are now. The B2 standard of English is not often achieved in southern Europe and is seldom achieved in east Asia. Any measures that include a requirement for a B2 standard of English as a condition of entry will have a significant, damaging effect on the market for overseas students coming to the UK.

This goes beyond language. UEA has developed the innovative Newton programme in which overseas students come to the UK to do A-levels in the sciences, mathematics and economics in a university environment and have the opportunity to attend lectures with university undergraduates in those disciplines. That is a great way of marketing the university overseas and attracts some of the highest calibre students. If there were ever an area that cried out for joined-up government it is this.

I really want to hear from the Minister on one issue above any other: do the Government intend to promote or reduce the UK’s recruitment of bona fide non-EU students in higher education? We have to get out of a big hole. It is simply critical, at a time when the Government are asking universities to be more entrepreneurial, to seek out new customers and to offer new courses that meet the needs of those customers; and at a time when the whole economy needs a lift, which the university sector can provide, that the right hand and the left hand of our Government each know what the other is doing and that we do not inadvertently choke off what should be a crucial part of this country’s recovery.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing the debate. I appreciate that the unusually large attendance for an Adjournment debate means that many Members have come to intervene, but unfortunately, as my hon. Friend has taken up two thirds of the time available, I am afraid I will not be able to take any interventions. He has raised many important points that I want to address in the brief time remaining.

First, let me put the consultation into perspective. Reforming the immigration system and reducing the level of immigration to a sustainable number is one of the Government’s big tasks. The uncontrolled immigration levels of the previous decade led to a loss of public confidence, strain on public services and an increase in the visibility of extremist politicians holding unpleasant views seeking to exploit the problem. We as a country need to reverse this, and we as a Government are doing just that.

We have made it clear that we will take a different approach. We will tighten up our system, stop abuse and support only the most beneficial immigrants. We set out our approach last year to economic migration, we have just finished a consultation on student migration, the specific subject of the debate, and we will consult on families and settlement. We have indicated that, through a more rigorous and controlled approach, we will see fewer non-EU migrants than in the past. Our goal is an improved system that commands the confidence of the public and serves our economic interests. We expect this to come through a system that shows a significant fall in net migration to the UK, from the hundreds of thousands annually that we have seen in recent years to tens of thousands over the course of this Parliament. To set that in perspective, in 2009 net migration was at nearly 200,000 and continued rising in the early part of 2010. For non-EEA migrants—that is, excluding British and EU citizens—it was around 184,000. My principal task is to reduce the numbers coming, increase the numbers leaving when their visas are up, and eliminate abuse in the system, one of the important points raised by my hon. Friend.

I am taking action to tighten our migration system across all entry routes for non-EEA-migrants—work, study and family—and to break the link between temporary routes and permanent settlement. Some of the measures will take effect in the short term. Others will set us on a long-term road to sustainable immigration, where Britain benefits economically and culturally from new skills and backgrounds, but in a context where people are at ease with the changes that they see around them.

On the student immigration system, the majority of non-EU immigrants are students. Our public consultation on the student visa system closed on 31 January and we are carefully considering the more than 30,000 responses that we received, before finalising our proposals.

Let me deal directly with some of the points made by my hon. Friend. The UK’s education system is world renowned. We remain the second most popular global destination of choice for the many thousands of higher education students who choose to study abroad each year. We want to encourage all those genuine students coming here to study at our world-class academic institutions. Genuine international students make an important financial contribution to the institutions that they attend, including our universities, where their continued contribution will be all the more important in the light of changes to the way in which those institutions are funded.

The brightest and the best students who have the greatest contribution to make to the UK will continue to be welcomed under the student route, but we remain concerned that not all those using the student route at present are genuine students whose main intention is to come to the UK to study. There are significant numbers of students whose contribution is less easily defined.

One of the interesting points that my hon. Friend makes, which has also been made to me by Professor Acton, on whose behalf he was speaking, is that we should stop counting students as immigrants—that they come, they study and they go, so they should not count. I am afraid to tell my hon. Friend that the definition of an immigrant is a UN definition. It is not under my control or under the control of the British Government. According to that definition, an immigrant is somebody who comes to stay in a country with the intention of staying for more than a year. That is the international definition.

Those who invite me to change the definition make a tempting case. I could at a stroke define away 60% of the immigration into the UK. I could, with the statistical stroke of a pen, define away the immigration problem, but I am programmed to resist temptation. In all seriousness, the idea that any Government could say, “We’ve solved the serious problem of immigration simply by redefining what immigrants are” would have no credibility. It would clearly be an absurd thing to do. We have to keep using the internationally agreed figures that are always used.

It is important to put the arguments in a proper statistical perspective. Students now represent the largest proportion of non-EU net migration. In 2009 the student route, including dependants, accounted for approximately 139,000 out of the total net migration figure of 184,000, which is 76% of total net migration. Recent Home Office research shows that 13% of those granted settlement in 2009 were originally admitted as students—23,000 grants of settlement. Further Home Office research shows that more than one fifth of those who came here as students in 2004 were still here five years later in 2009.

Another point that is absolutely essential to understanding the debate is that all too often there is an assumption that the vast majority of those students who come here do so as university students. Actually, 41% of the students who come here from abroad do so to study a course below degree level, and abuse is particularly common at those lower levels. As my hon. Friend admitted, 58 education providers have had their sponsor licences revoked since 31 March 2009, and the vast majority of them were privately funded further education colleges.

Last year, the post-study route, which my hon. Friend mentioned, allowed 38,000 foreign graduates to enter the UK labour market at a time when one in 10 UK graduates were unemployed in their first six months after graduating. Another common misconception is that because those highly skilled students are coming to read degrees and then take up skilled jobs in the work force, surely they are upskilling our general industrial output. In a survey of users of that system in which respondents were asked about their current employment status, of those in the tier 1 post-study work category—precisely those who are meant to be the brightest and the best doing skilled jobs—almost one fifth were unemployed and only half of those who were employed were in a skilled or highly skilled job.

It is too sweeping a statement to say that the system as it has worked up to now is not delivering highly skilled people into highly skilled jobs, because it is doing some of that, but it is also doing an awful lot of something else that I suspect Members on both sides of the House would not regard as desirable. As was mentioned in the interesting Home Affairs Committee hearing this morning, when the new system was introduced by the previous Government, there was such widespread abuse in three parts of the world that after a few months the whole system had to be suspended there: no student could be let in from parts of China, India and Nepal because of the absolutely widespread abuse that we saw.

I have already identified the private sector FE colleges that provide education below degree level as the area where we have the most worries. In the last year for which we have figures, those institutions admitted 91,000 students, so we are not talking about a small number of students on the periphery of a system that basically involves universities. We are talking about tens of thousands of students coming to institutions, the vast majority of which are not highly trusted sponsors under our system. That is why one of the key proposals in our consultation document is that only providers who are highly trusted sponsors will be able to offer courses below degree level.

Another absolutely key item on which we have consulted is a stricter accreditation system, which we need to create. The accreditation system that has grown up for those private sector colleges in recent years is clearly not adequate, and we are talking to those who regulate education, as well as looking at the way in which we regulate immigration routes, so that a new accreditation system for those institutions can be introduced which ensures our confidence in them. In the past few days, we have finished the consultation, and we will finalise our proposals over the coming weeks and, of course, announce our response to the House as soon as possible.

We want to create for student migration a strong framework that requires education providers to tighten and improve their selection and recruitment procedures. There will be a greater emphasis on quality, and we shall drive abuse out of the system. That will generate public confidence in the immigration system and ultimately be good for all the legitimate international students who are welcome to study here. Those changes to the student route are a vital building block in our overall immigration policy.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).