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Overseas Students

Volume 548: debated on Monday 9 July 2012

3. How many visas were issued to overseas students to study at UK universities in the 2011-12 academic year. (115540)

Figures for the 2011-12 academic year are not yet available, but 206,176 tier 4 student visas were issued in the year to March 2012. This figure covers all students, including those attending university. Last week, Universities UK told the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that universities are projecting an increase in international students coming to the UK, and UCAS applications from international students have risen by 10%.

We have some of the best universities in the world, and overseas students contribute £8 billion to our national economy and balance of trade. There has been lots of speculation over the weekend that the Government are about to change the migration figures so as to exclude overseas students. Will the Minister make a statement about the Government’s intentions, and will he think seriously about what can be done with the visa regime and the language requirements to encourage more genuine students to study at British universities?

I will happily make a statement now. There are no plans at all to change the definition of immigration. A student who comes here for three years or more is as much of an immigrant as somebody who comes on a work visa for two years or more. There is an international definition of immigration which covers everyone who moves to another country for more than a year, so students who come here for more than a year are included in that definition.

Will my hon. Friend reject any pressures to change the policy on students coming here in the light of the fact that the OECD estimates that a quarter of students subsequently stay on, 120,000 of them settle and 120,000 seek and are granted extensions of their stay while they are here, and there are some 150,000 outstanding illegal immigrants who came here on university visas?

My right hon. Friend makes a number of powerful points. There is, of course, no cap on genuine students coming to study genuinely at genuine institutions, and some of our universities, which are indeed the best in the world, benefit hugely from that. Nevertheless, we have driven out a huge amount of abuse in the student visa system. More than 500 colleges that used to take foreign students can no longer do so because we put in a proper checking and accreditation regime.

Many colleges’ licences have been cancelled for several reasons. Many students have been issued visas at the British high commissions in Delhi, Pakistan and other places. How many were refused entry at the airport when they arrived due to the cancellations of their colleges’ licences?

I am afraid that I cannot give the figure off the top of my head, but I doubt whether most of them would have been refused entry at the airport. I would say to the hon. Gentleman, and indeed to prospective students, that because of the action that we have taken in driving out abuse it is very much less likely now than two years ago for any genuine student from overseas to arrive in Britain and find that they have registered with a bogus college. Removing these bogus colleges has an enormous benefit for the British taxpayer and the integrity of our immigration system, but it also helps genuine foreign students to know that from now on they will be coming to get a proper education in Britain.

Does my hon. Friend agree that while overseas students are vital for our universities, this has become an increasingly abused immigration route, and that the blanket removal of students from the statistics would drive a coach and horses through the excellent measures that he has introduced?

I agree completely with the final point that my hon. Friend made. He was right about the abuse. I am happy to report to him and the House that, as of today, we are introducing more widespread interviewing of students to check their ability to benefit from a course here. We ran a pilot between December and February, and discovered that 17% of those who had been accepted on a course in this country should be refused because they could not even speak basic conversational English. There is always more abuse to drive out and we will continue to do so.