[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Session 2012-13, Overseas Students and Net Migration, HC 425, and the Government response, Cm 8557, Seventh Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Session 2012-13, Too little, Too late: Committee’s observations on the Government Response to the Report on Overseas Students and Net Migration, HC 1015, and the Government response, Cm 8622, Fifth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, The work of the UK Border Agency (December 2011-March 2012), HC 71, Sixth Special Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, The work of the UK Border Agency (December 2011-March 2012): Government response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2012-13, HC 825, Eighth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, The work of the UK Border Agency (April-June 2012), HC 603, and the Government response, Cm 8591, Seventh Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 2012-13, Immigration: The Points Based System–Student Route, HC 101, and the Treasury minute, Cm 8467]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the recommendations of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Home Affairs Select Committee, and the Committee of Public Accounts, together with the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education, for the removal of students from net migration targets; and invites the Home Office to further consider the conclusions of these Committees in developing its immigration policy.
I thank the Back-Bench Business Committee for allocating time for this important debate. I am grateful to those Members who helped me get this Back-Bench business debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who is not only a fellow Select Committee member, but secretary of the all-party higher education group, whom I thank for the work that he has done, and the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), whom I thank for the assiduous way in which he has backed the Select Committee recommendations and worked to ensure that they get wider recognition.
The motion demonstrates that there have been five Select Committee reports on this subject. All have examined the student visas issue, all have come to similar conclusions and all have been consistently rejected by the Home Office, even though a considerable number of Government Members on the relevant Select Committees have backed those reports. However, the wording of the motion is deliberately designed not to pursue a confrontational approach with the Home Office, and I will not seek to divide the House on the motion. Rather, the motion has been tabled in order to give the House an opportunity to present a case for removing students from the net migration figures in a way that will be evidence-led and lead to further consideration in the evolution and, I hope, refinement of the Government’s immigration policies.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on securing the debate and accurately reflecting the views of the Home Affairs Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the way we conduct this debate—the language that we use—is extremely important? Over the past year, in the case of India, for example, there has been a 30% decline in the number of students coming to this country because the message has got out that they are not welcome here. Our message is that they are welcome here, and we need to reflect this in the debate that we have and in Government policy.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not just the regulatory regime, but the language surrounding the introduction and implementation of that regulatory regime, which define international perception of our policy. I will touch on that in the course of my remarks.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on securing this debate on a very important issue. International students make a huge difference. I offer apologies from me and, I am sure, from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, as we have a Home Affairs Committee debate in another place which starts shortly.
Further to the question from the Select Committee Chair, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are three things that we have to get right—the rhetoric, the policy and the administration? If we fall foul of any of those, we will not get the outcomes that we need.
I agree. In varying degrees, none of those is right at present.
Before I go on to the substance of the issues, let me make it clear that no MP in any party can be unaware of public concerns about immigration or can fail to recognise the legitimacy of the Government’s intentions to address that. Similarly, I do not think that any MP in any party can object to actions being taken against bogus colleges and the use of education as a route to illegal immigration. I am sure all MPs of all parties would stand behind the Government and the education system as a whole in seeking to block that.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on this very good report. It meshes well with the Higher Education Commission report on post-graduate education, which he will know of. What is good about his report is that it flags up in a sensible way the problems of migration and bogus colleges, but points out strongly that, within this international market and this great employment and wealth creator, the universities of this country and post-graduate education in particular are sensitive to the possible reaction of legitimate students—highly qualified people—who come here.
The hon. Gentleman addresses an important point. Skills and higher education is now a global market. Those with the best brains are increasingly footloose and go to the places where they think they will get the best opportunity to develop their expertise and where they feel they will get the warmest welcome. It is in that international context that we must look at our policies on student visas.
In addressing what must be recognised as a hugely sensitive issue and a focus of public concern, the Government must have a student regime that does not deter bona fide international students and does not undermine our further education colleges, our universities or the wider economy. I recognise the efforts that the Prime Minister has made to visit India and China in particular to make it clear unequivocally that there is no cap on bona fide student applications. However, the Prime Minister has a credibility problem if, at the same time as he proclaims those things, students who wish to come to this country from abroad find that their dealings with the Home Office and the visa process completely contradict his public assertions.
Does my hon. Friend find it slightly perplexing that we have seen a drop of about 40,000 a year in overseas student numbers, which suggests that the very people he wants to attract are being deterred, and that simultaneously we have seen a huge growth in temporary student visas—the very group that the independent inspector warned is most likely to include bogus students?
My hon. Friend mentions an important point. I shall deal with that in some depth in a moment.
Within the regulatory regime, the current problems are focused on the inflexibility of the tier 4 visa for undergraduate education. Over and above that and linked to it are the problems associated with the post-study work visa. There is no doubt that many international students who want an undergraduate education want to carry that on at postgraduate level in order to demonstrate the skills that they have acquired in local universities, the local public sector or sometimes local businesses. The majority deterrent to that within the existing visa structure is the high salary threshold, which precludes much postgraduate working in areas where salaries for graduates are lower or in professions where salaries for graduates are lower.
Credibility interviews are the process that the Home Office is using to interview would-be international students in their home countries to establish the credibility of their claims to want higher education in this country. The feedback that I am getting time and again from universities is that that approach appears to be incoherent and inconsistent. Taken together with the change in regulations, it reinforces the perception abroad that Britain is no longer open to business. The fact that the Prime Minister needs to go to these countries and make these statements is a tacit admission that there is a real problem and a gap between the regulatory regime as stated by the Government and the perception of it abroad.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech. In London alone, tuition fees are paid by overseas students to the value of £870 million, so we have a tremendous gain from these students coming here. At my local colleges, Goldsmith’s and Trinity Laban, the student experience is vastly enhanced by the presence of foreign students.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention. I will elaborate on that point in a moment, and I am sure that Members representing other universities would seek to do so.
We really need to sing about the fact that further and higher education in Britain is a success story. It is not just a way for people to fulfil their personal career ambitions or to develop themselves culturally and socially, important though that is; it is an industry that earns £8 billion in exports and contributes £14 billion, in all, to the British economy. In certain towns, particularly in more deprived regions, it is crucial in sustaining employment levels and economies. Four UK universities are in the world university top 10 rankings, and a very high percentage are in the top 200. It is not just about the contribution that international students make to the economies of the local areas in which universities are located. Increasingly, universities are working in collaboration with local businesses to ensure that the research and skills that they develop are harnessed for commercial purposes or with the public sector to assist in the local community. I have seen fantastic examples of that work up and down the country, and it is crucially underpinned by international students.
Last year, 12% of the total student body comprised international students, 49% of whom enrolled in courses in engineering, maths and computer sciences—the very areas where there are serious skills shortages and the maximum economic dividend for our businesses. Any policy that restricts access into those areas will have, in the long term, profound implications for the capacity of our local businesses to grow the economy.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee. He may well come to this point, but I would like to make it as well. Many people who come to this country to study get a very good impression of it. They get educated here and they experience our values and understand what we stand for. When they go back, they become a friend of this country in their own societies. That is terribly important for the future of our country and, indeed, their countries.
I appreciate that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will be aware that I represent the constituency that includes London Metropolitan university. Although things have moved on a long way and some overseas students are now being recruited, will he express regret about how that university has been treated and the damage that was done to Britain’s international reputation by the Home Office’s handling of the situation?
Whatever the case for taking action there, the way that it was handled has undoubtedly had considerable adverse repercussions abroad. Perhaps the case needs to be examined to see whether similar problems that may emerge in future can be dealt with in a less damaging way.
We have a superb industry and there is a huge and increasing global demand for its product. It is estimated that 4.1 million students are studying in different countries from their home countries and that that figure will rise to 7 million by 2020. We have top-class universities and an expanding market of people who want to come here, and we must capitalise on that.
The Government have claimed that their visa policy is working because, according to the figures, there has been a marginal increase in the number of international students applying to come to British universities in the past year. In reality, there are considerable fluctuations, with an increase in numbers coming from China offsetting a huge fall of 25% in those coming from India. I have to say that Universities UK disputes some of these figures, but I do not want to get drawn into a debate between the Government and Universities UK. Everybody recognises that at a time when there is huge and growing demand, Britain is, at best, flatlining in terms of the number of recruits it is getting. In fact, Britain’s share of this expanding market has dropped from 10.8% to 9.9%. A shareholder of a company that had a fantastic product and an expanding market would not be very happy with its management if it were taking a declining share of that market.
The crucial significance of that was highlighted by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is not only about the immediate benefit but the long-term trading relationships that build up as a result. In the west midlands, we see that with the Tata brothers and their investment in Jaguar Land Rover, and with Lord Paul and his investment in schools and companies. There is a tremendous potential as regards the immeasurable contribution that will be made due to foreign students studying here.
This comes at a time when universities are struggling for finance; they recognise that in these hard times they cannot be exempt. Recruitment of international students presents an opportunity for them to bring in extra money that unfortunately they cannot get from the Government because of the current financial problems. My local university, Wolverhampton, currently recruits 800 international students each year, but it estimates that with a fair and consistent visa process it could take another 500 a year from India and Sri Lanka alone. If they contribute £10,000 a year, which is a fairly minimal estimate, that would amount to £5 million more a year going into the local university and, above all, into the black country economy. I think that that situation would be reflected in other universities that I have spoken to.
Earlier I mentioned the credibility test, which is undoubtedly one of the major problems. It is not only a regulatory problem but a process problem. One prospective Wolverhampton university student was rejected on the grounds that the amount of money he would spend in this country meant that he could get the same course at a domestic university in his own country. Imagine that happening in any other industry: if somebody told Jaguar, “You can’t export a Jaguar, because people can afford to buy one that’s made in their own country,” we would be up in arms and dancing in rage. In this case, however, nothing is said.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. On immigration policy and practices, I am sure that the case loads of most MPs present will show that that kind of message deters genuine students from coming here. It means that the country loses finances and other resources as well as the individual student.
I agree entirely.
I have another example from Wolverhampton university. Six international students were refused visas even though they were sponsored by the Department for International Development. Moreover, when the Department wrote to the consulate, they were still rejected. If the Government cannot get their own people into the country through the Home Office system, what hope do so many young people from other countries have?
In its reply to the Select Committee report, the Home Office argued that other countries include students in their net migration figures. There are variations from country to country and I do not want to get bogged down in that argument, but the crucial thing is that, whether they do that or not, they do not use the figures as the basis for their immigration policy. The Government’s target of reducing net migration to fewer than 100,000 can only be achieved by reducing numbers. The current drop to 157,000 has been achieved mainly by reducing numbers in the further education sector and by increased numbers going abroad. The Migration Advisory Committee calculates that to reach the target, non-EU student numbers need to be reduced by 87,000. That would be catastrophic to the finances of the FE and higher education sectors.
In conclusion, a policy whose success relies on damaging a great export industry needs re-examination. This is an industry with a great brand, a huge demand for its product and incredible potential for boosting the economy, both locally and nationally, and it should be backed all the way. It is an industry that should be helped, not handicapped. The current visa regime, whatever the legitimacy of the broad objectives of the immigration policy, is not doing that. It is handicapping our universities. The answer is to change the policy and focus on the real immigration issues that are, I recognise, of great concern to the public.
Order. Many Members want to speak, so may I gently suggest that they speak for up to 10 minutes? Unfortunately the opening speech lasted 23 minutes, so it has pushed us back. It was a very good speech—I am not knocking that—but I remind Members that we have to stick to the timetable because we need to fit in the Front Benchers as well.
I shall attempt to take less than 10 minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Ever since Erasmus came to study Greek at Cambridge 500 years ago, our universities have attracted the best and the brightest from around the world, but the world is changing. In the modern global marketplace, we have no God-given right to a competitive advantage in higher education. We have to fight for it.
As the Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has said, there will be huge rewards for the British economy if we get this right. By 2020 the number of international students worldwide is set to grow to 7 million. Key strategic partners, such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, have earmarked billions of dollars to spend on sending their students on scholarships abroad. This is a fast-growing market and if we want to win the global race we have to get serious about growing our market share.
We know that the competition is serious. Could there be any better example of the extraordinary lengths to which our rivals will go than the French Government’s recent decision to relax the ban on teaching in the English language at French universities? Let us be clear: even though we enjoy a commanding position in the market, over the past 10 years our market share has remained pretty flat. Over the same period, our two most obvious competitors after the United States—namely Australia and Canada—have recorded significant increases. What are they doing differently?
First, both countries present more attractive options for post-study work. Foreign students in Canada can work for up to three years after graduation, and in Australia they can work for up to two years, rising to three with a masters and four with a PhD. Crucially, they do not have to seek work with a Government-approved firm or on a Government-approved salary.
The other key difference is that both countries distinguish between the temporary student inflow and long-term migrants when devising their borders policy. Australia has learned the hard way why that makes sense. When student visa rules were tightened up in response to political pressure in 2010, the Australian higher education sector posted a 2.7 billion Australian dollar loss on goods and services that would otherwise have been purchased by overseas students. In the UK, we risk making the same mistake. In particular, the closure of the tier 1 post-study work route has broadcast the message around the world that foreign students are less welcome in the UK than they are in our competitor economies.
I believe that the perception of a policy is just as important as the policy itself. Even though it did not come to it, the prospect of legitimate students at London Metropolitan facing deportation was deeply damaging. We cannot expect the casual 17-year-old reader of the China Daily who is thinking about studying abroad to distinguish between London Metropolitan university and the University of London.
My hon. Friend is making some valid points. Does he agree that one of the key things that must come out of this debate is a clear message to students in India, China and other emerging economies with a lot of growth that the UK is open, that there are no caps or limits, and that they can come here if they go to an accredited establishment, can speak English and have the funding?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that the message has to be that we are open for business. Indeed, the latest figures for 2010-11 and 2011-12 show that all the Russell group universities apart from three posted positive increases. There is some good news, but I hope that this debate will further inform the Government and the Home Office as to what else we can do to enhance the situation.
Although I agree with my hon. Friend that we should give the message that we are open to legitimate students, will he also concede that this route has been abused in the past and that, equally, we have to give a message that we will be robust with those people who intend to exploit our good will as a route into the country?
My hon. Friend is spot on in saying that we have to be robust and I will deal with that later. She is absolutely right to say that we have to carry the good will of the British people with us and demonstrate rigour in the immigration system and our border controls in order to be able to send a message to those areas that are crucial to our exports.
I want to return to the point that perception is reality and the example of the young student reading the China Daily. Fortunately, we know exactly what the problem is. With unprecedented unanimity, all five parliamentary Committees that have looked into this issue agree that the Government’s net migration target puts our borders policy on a collision course with our ambitions for higher education.
Political targets are an essential part of the democratic process. They tell the electorate what we are about and what our values are. However, targets are not an end in themselves, but a tool to measure the success of broader policy aims. The Government’s net migration target is about building an immigration system that works for Britain—one that delivers economic benefits while addressing long-standing public concerns about immigration. However, if we are trying to meet that target by discouraging a group who provide an obvious economic benefit, who are disproportionately less likely to settle here and who, of all migrant groups, attract the least public concern, something is wrong with the target.
I want immigration politics to be taken out of our higher education system. For that to happen, we must take international students out of the targets.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Should we not be explaining to the public in more detail what the net migration figure is made up of and disaggregating it? We can debate whether student numbers should be taken out, but clearly we must explain each of the components, because that is not widely understood.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right.
We can do three things to solve this problem. First, we must continue to come down hard on immigration fraud. The Government are right to deal robustly with those who abuse the student route. The fact that we have closed down more than 500 bogus colleges since the election shows how easy it has been to exploit the student visa system in recent years. If we want to carry the public with us, it is vital to maintain public confidence in the integrity of our immigration system.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making about bogus colleges, but does he have sympathy for the students who applied to enter this country to study at those colleges and who have had a very bad time through no fault of their own because they were duped into a very bad system? The system has changed a bit, but should we not have a more humanitarian approach to those people who, after all, are victims?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that innocents get caught out in those situations. The best way to deal with the problem is to close down the colleges that are abusing the system and the students. Indeed, I spoke about London Metropolitan university in his constituency earlier and the perception that there is the forced deportation of legitimate students from this country.
Secondly, we must be more intelligent about where the risks and the opportunities lie for us. I hope that Ministers will listen to this point carefully. In targeting tier 4 visas, the UK Border Agency already distinguishes between high and low-risk students. There are face-to-face interviews for students who are considered to be high risk.
In my opinion, that should work the other way around and we should give the red-carpet treatment to the kind of students we want to attract to our country. For example, female students from the Gulf states are likely to have lower English language proficiency and are more likely to want to bring their spouses and children with them. If we want to see reform in the Gulf states, those are exactly the kind of students we need to attract. However, under the current rules, their dependants are obliged to return home every six months to renew their visa, and after 11 months the student must do the same. In Australia, Canada and America, dependants can apply for a visa that covers the whole study period. We do not need to rewrite the rule book; we just need to have more common sense and flexibility where our national interests are concerned.
Finally, we need a cross-party consensus to neutralise the political fallout. No Government want to be accused of fiddling the figures, particularly on a policy area as combustible as immigration. We need to present a united front when standing up for British economic interests. That is why I am sharing a platform with my colleagues from the Labour party on this motion.
I came into politics to get politics out of the way of British businesses that want to grow. Elsewhere in the economy, the Government have done great things to cut red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy. We must extend the same freedoms and opportunities to our higher education sector. I commend the motion to the House.
It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), just as it was to speak alongside him last September at the Conservative party conference, where we made the same points and received a good reception.
I am not sure that I will make a habit of it. We made the point then and we make it again today that there is much cross-party unity on this issue. The fact that the motion has been sponsored by Members from all three main parties is a sign of that. From my discussions with Government Members, I am sure that, were they not tied by the responsibilities of office, many more of them would be joining us in support of the motion.
The case that we are making today was perhaps most powerfully put in an article in the Financial Times in May 2012 under the headline, “Foreign students are key to UK prosperity”. The author wrote:
“Britain’s universities are a globally competitive export sector and well-placed to make a greater contribution to growth. With economic growth at a premium, the UK should be wary of artificially hobbling it.”
The article continued:
“Now that the government has clamped down on the problem of bogus colleges”—
from my perspective, the last Government did that too—
“there is scope to take legitimate students out of the annual migration targets… Indeed, that is what our main competitors in the global student market already do.”
I do not disagree with a word in the entire article and I do not think that any of my hon. Friends would. Who was the author? It was the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who is now head of the No. 10 policy unit. I quote from that article not to score a debating point, but to demonstrate the breadth of support for the motion.
At the outset of the debate, it is worth emphasising that international students are important not just because of their financial contribution, but because they add to the intellectual vitality of our campuses; they are vital to the viability of many courses, particularly in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths; they contribute to the cutting-edge research that gives the UK a unique edge in international markets; and they give UK students the chance to learn alongside people from every other major country, which is extraordinarily good preparation for the transnational environment in which our graduates will work. As has been pointed out, international students form relationships and a fondness for this country that will win us contracts and influence as they become leaders back home.
Those are huge advantages for Britain, but let us put them to one side and look at the hard-nosed economic case. International students bring £8 billion into the UK economy each year. Higher education is a major industry and a major export earner. Some people ask, “What about the costs?” Indeed, the Minister made that point on the all-party parliamentary university group at one point. I discussed it with the university of Sheffield, which said, “Fair point. We ought to look at that”, and it commissioned Oxford Economics to undertake the first ever independent cost-benefit analysis of the contribution of international students. As an independent study I expected it to be quite rigorous, although I did not realise how rigorous. Oxford Economics did not just look at health, education and use of public services; it went to the nth degree and looked at traffic congestion and every conceivable indirect cost. It concluded that the annual net benefit to our city’s economy is £120 million. That is worth about 6,000 much-needed jobs in the city, not just in universities but in restaurants, shops, transport, construction and more besides.
The Government have damaged our ability to recruit by including international students in net migration targets. That is not a statistical argument but a fundamental point because in doing so, they have put international students at the heart of the immigration debate. It is no good saying, as the Minister might later and the Home Office did this week in its response to the report by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, that there is no cap on student numbers—[Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that there is not, but if the Government have a target for reducing immigration and they include international students in that, such a policy leads them to celebrate cutting the number of international students coming to the UK. Indeed, the Minister did just that a couple of weeks ago when the fall in net migration was announced by celebrating the drop in numbers of 56,000 international students year on year.
The Minister will point out that within those figures the number of university visas rose slightly while the real fall was in private college and further education student numbers, but that in itself should be a cause for worry not celebration. Not only are those students valuable in themselves, those courses are pathways into higher education and a fall in numbers is an indication of the problems we are storing up for the future. Conservative estimates suggest that some 40% of students going to universities in the UK go through those routes, and we should worry about that future impact.
On other occasions, the Government have argued that numbers are holding up, but as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) clearly pointed out, holding up is not good enough. We do not want to stand still in a growing market, which the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognised will double by 2025. That is another £8 billion in export earnings for the UK and another 6,000 jobs in Sheffield, yet the Home Office is frustrating that ambition.
The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) mentioned Brazil—one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Under their Science Without Borders programme, the Brazilian Government are spending $2 billion over four years on sending 100,000 of their brightest young people to study abroad at undergraduate and postgraduate level. They want them to go to the best universities in the world, and those are in the UK.
A group of 2,143 Brazilian students who wanted to come to the UK have been prevented by inflexible visa rules. They are high-achieving students who wanted to study undergraduate STEM courses, but they needed to improve their English before starting. Current rules prevent them from staying in the UK after completing an English language course, and they would have had to return to Brazil and reapply for a new visa before starting their courses. As a result of those rules and the Home Office’s refusal to change them, 1,100 of those students are now going to the US and 600 to Australia, where they are welcome to study English and stay on for their degree course. Of the original 2,143 students, only 43 are applying to come to the UK this September. The value to the country of that cohort was £66 million. That has been lost because of Home Office inflexibility, and with it, considerable good will.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman and I commend him for his work with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). He reminds me of a story in the Financial Times which, when describing the stupidity of the Home Office stated:
“If the Home Office were a horse it would have been shot by now.”
Despite the fact that the Home Office has been split up into an interior ministry and the Ministry of Justice, it still evinces extraordinary stupidity. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most extraordinary aspects of that stupidity is that the STEM subjects, which this country needs so badly, in many universities across the country can be sustained in sufficient numbers only if we include foreign students?
I absolutely agree with that point, which I raised earlier in passing. I commend the hon. Gentleman on initiating an Adjournment debate some time ago. I know he feels passionately about this subject, as many of us do.
To allow other hon. Members to contribute, I will draw my remarks to a close by making a couple of points. Including students in net migration targets distorts the policy debate on immigration and focuses on the migration that concerns nobody. More importantly, as has been said, it damages the opportunity for growth in one of our most important and successful industries. Five Select Committees of both Houses are agreed on the issue, and as we debate the matter, those in the other place are also considering it when discussing a report by one of its Select Committees. This is too important for the Home Office to dig its heels in, and I suspect that in his heart the Minister knows that. I urge him to go away from today’s debate, look again at the inclusion of students in our net migration targets, and send a clear message to the world that it is not just about what we say but about what we do, and that we are open for business.
I pay tribute to all three previous speakers, who have set out clearly the arguments relevant to this debate, and I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) on securing it.
Back in the autumn, in his speech to the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister set out an overall mission for the Government, to ensure that this country can win in the global race in which we are engaged. I strongly support that message and have a lot of time for it. We as politicians are sometimes guilty of telling people what they want to hear, but this is actually quite an uncomfortable message because in reality, the world in which we live is not easy and Britain has to earn its living within it.
As well as congratulating the three Members who have spoken so far, I express sympathy for the Minister, for whom I have a high regard. It is his job to balance the Government’s overall mission with what the hon. Member for West Bromwich West acknowledged is our clear task of addressing the public’s concern about levels of migration into this country in recent years—not an easy thing to do. When my constituents communicate with me they sometimes seem to think that the challenges we face are easy to resolve, but the reality of politics is that a lot of these issues are difficult and sometimes point us in conflicting directions. There is also a fundamental conflict between the need in electoral politics for simplicity of message when trying to communicate what our party would do in government, and the complexity of the issues we need to deal with—that point was alluded to in some of the earlier speeches.
Let me say a little about what my constituents think about immigration, which I think is relevant to the debate. I represent a part of south London that is changing rapidly demographically, and it will not be long before no ethnic community is in a majority in the London borough of Croydon, nor will it ever be again. Migration is an issue of real concern to my constituents, particularly because the UK Border Agency has a significant presence in Croydon in Lunar house. Many of my constituents have recently been through the asylum or immigration processes, and I have several thousand constituents who worked for the two units into which the agency has been broken. A lot of my constituents are concerned about the pace of change, and I spend a lot of time talking to them on the doorstep about those concerns. However, I have never heard a constituent express to me a concern about bright people from around the world coming to study at our universities, or about international companies that want to invest in the UK and create businesses, bringing some of their managers and employees to the UK as part of that investment into our economy.
However, I hear a lot of concern about low-skill migration into the EU, which many of my constituents believe—rightly or wrongly—has made it more difficult for them or their children to get work and has depressed wages in sectors of our economy. There is a great deal of concern about unlimited migration from within the EU, and the effect of allowing into the EU countries from eastern Europe, which I strongly support—the concern is about the principle of free movement when the EU incorporates a series of states that are at different levels economically.
There is also huge concern about our failure to control our borders effectively. When I report to my constituents on the Government’s progress in reducing net migration, they are almost universally inclined not to believe the figures, because their perception is that the figures do not include people who are here illegally. On migration policy, therefore, I am most keen for the Government to take more action than they are taking to deal with people who are in this country who should not be here.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. You are very kind, as is my hon. Friend.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the introduction of exit checks could be important? In that way, we would know not only how many people are coming into the country, but how many people are going out. One of our biggest problems in developing immigration policy is poor data.
If I can make progress, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
I will not go into too much detail on students because the previous hon. Members who made speeches set the situation out clearly, but the UK gains four clear benefits from international students, the first of which is economic. We have heard the figures for the UK as a whole, but the Mayor of London’s office tells me that the economic benefit to London, my city, is about £2.5 billion a year.
The second benefit is to the experience of our students when they are at university. I was lucky enough to attend the university of Cambridge, and can attest to the benefit I gained from studying with pupils from around the world.
The third benefit, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) strongly communicated, is to what is frequently referred to as the UK’s soft power. A 2011 Select Committee on Home Affairs report identified that 27 foreign Heads of State had been educated in the UK. That is a difficult benefit to quantify, but an important one to this country.
It does include Syria—clearly, educating Heads of State will not be a benefit universally, but the hon. Gentleman would agree that, in general, having people in leading positions in foreign countries, whether in Governments, the diplomatic service, the military or the business community, is a benefit to the UK.
No one would disagree with a number of the hon. Gentleman’s points. For the record, I have always had straight dealings with the Minister in relation to cases I have pursued. Would it not be better if students from abroad were excluded from the immigration numbers? On restoring the manufacturing base, companies in the west midlands such as Jaguar Land Rover will need more and more highly skilled people, whether from abroad or from within. German companies such as Bosch and a large number of universities are in Coventry and the west midlands. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a better approach would be to exclude students from abroad from our figures to help our exports?
I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point at the end of my speech, but on his point on skills, when there are skill needs in our economy, our starting point should be to ask, “Can we train people in this country who have not got work to do those jobs?” However, if there are high-skill gaps, we should of course bring people in if we need them.
The fourth benefit of such migration, which has not been mentioned much, is the contribution to UK science and technology. I studied natural science at Cambridge and was on the Select Committee on Science and Technology for a period, so I feel passionately about this. Some 49% of people on taught postgraduate course in maths, engineering or computer science are international students—that figure has been mentioned. Cutting down on those numbers would have a massive effect on UK leadership in science. Sir Andre Geim, the Russian-born Nobel prize winner from the university of Manchester, has said that the identification of graphene would
“probably not have happened if”
“had been unable to employ great non-EU PhD postdoctoral students”.
Those are the four clear benefits, but there are problems. The Higher Education Statistics Agency provides figures for enrolments, not for visa applications—enrolments are the best measure. In 2011, there was a slight decline in applications for first-year places at university from non-EU applicants. Admittedly, the position is complex, with significant country variations—there was a big increase in applications from China, but a big decrease in applications from India. I should be grateful if the Minister would offer an explanation for those significant variations if he has time. Students from different parts of the world tend to apply for different courses. Indian students are more likely to apply for STEM courses, so those variations have an impact on universities. In 2012, for the first time in 10 years, the total number of non-EU postgraduate students fell.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) correctly identified the three issues we need to address, the first of which is bureaucracy and the process people must go through when they want to come here. I pay tribute to the Minister and the Home Secretary, because the decision to split the UKBA up into two organisations—one focuses on customer satisfaction and processing applications for people who want to come here, and the other focuses on the entirely different job of enforcement and removing people who should not be here—was the right decision, and a welcome one. However, there is more to do to improve the process and the experience people have when they apply.
The second issue is the tone and the message we send out in debates on migration—that is not totally within the Government’s control, because we must also consider the tone of the migration debate in our media. The Government have recognised the importance of sending the message that the UK is open for business, as we saw during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to India.
The third issue is policy. We have a target for reducing net migration and should ask who is included in it. One hon. Member has mentioned the Migration Advisory Committee, which has said that an equivalent reduction in all different forms of migration could reduce student migration by 87,000. I put it to the Minister that, in 2009-10, the National Audit Office identified that about 50,000 students looked as if their principal reason for coming here was work rather than study. All hon. Members would accept that there was significant abuse of the process. That happened through institutions— bogus colleges—but we all see what we might regard as serial students, meaning people who have come here and done a number of courses but still not reached undergraduate level. Clearly, their primary motivation for coming to this country is to work in the UK, whatever their visa application says. All hon. Members accept that there was potential to reduce the numbers without having an impact on the positive aspects we have discussed.
On the long-term situation, the House has made its view clear on the policy, but I am interested in what the Conservative party will say in its next manifesto. As hon. Members have said, the sector has the potential nearly to double by 2020. At the moment, about 4.1 million around the world study in tertiary education abroad. The projection is that that will go up to 7 million by 2020. We should at least set ourselves the objective of maintaining our market share, which is currently about 13%. We have done the job of squeezing down on student migration abuse, but if our objective is to maintain or grow our market share and continue to recruit the people we want in this country, it will creep up over time.
I support what my party had to say at the previous election. It was absolutely right to focus on this, and I think many Opposition Members recognise that. In the longer term, we need to think more clearly about how we differentiate to the public the kinds of immigration that we are looking to control—the bits that we do not think are good for the country and want to squeeze down on, both illegal immigration and immigration through the existing system. We should not get ourselves into a position where we are trying to control things that we all recognise are positive and good for the country. I wish the Minister, for whom I have a very high regard, the best of luck as he grapples with the difficult balance that has to be struck between ensuring that we win the global race, but address the legitimate concerns many of my constituents have about the level of immigration.
I would like to join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and other colleagues on securing this important debate. He made some important points, as have all the subsequent speakers. It is good to see cross-party agreement emerging that we have to remove students from the immigration target in domestic policy.
With two universities and numerous independent colleges in Oxford East, my constituents are among the hardest hit by the ill-judged policies on student visas and immigration that the Government have brought in. They have inflicted serious damage on the reputation and attractiveness of the UK, and on the economic and cultural contribution that overseas students, and those who teach them, make to our country. The Government’s policies amount to a perverse and stupid act of economic self-sabotage. They hit a part of our economy where Britain in general, and Oxford in particular, have a strong global strategic competitive advantage. There is a logical contradiction in the Government protesting that there is no cap on student numbers, while persisting in including student numbers in their overall target of reducing net immigration to tens rather than hundreds of thousands. They find it so difficult to control other areas of immigration, including illegal immigration, that there is continual downward pressure on student numbers.
We are fortunate in Oxford to have many high-quality institutions. It shows how ludicrous this policy is if we imagine it being applied to another area; for example, to our Mini plant—to manufacturing, as opposed to educational exports. Imagine a Government who have an overall limit on manufacturing exports because they do not want too many foreigners getting their hands on our goods. As the number of BMW Minis being exported falls because overseas dealers worry that they will not be able to fulfil orders, the Prime Minister flies out to the far east and attempts to reassure people that while he is determined to bring down net manufacturing exports, there is no cap on the export of Minis! Such a policy would be barmy, way beyond swivel-eyed, and yet economically that is exactly what the cuts in overseas students amount to.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that it is simply no good for the Prime Minister to be going on these visits overseas supposedly to increase our exports when one of our very best exports, higher education, is being undermined by the Government’s policy?
It is my understanding that applications from overseas students to Oxford university have gone up by 22%. Is the right hon. Gentleman not mis-characterising the objective of the policy, which is to cut down on bogus student applications while still allowing our higher education sector to thrive?
The problem is that not enough is being done to encourage it to thrive. As was pointed out earlier, Universities UK takes issue with some of the figures, but however we characterise them the current position is pretty flat. For a global market that is expanding so quickly, it simply is not good enough.
Of course the closure of visa factories masquerading as colleges is a good thing, not least because of the impact on applicants, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out. They damage the reputation of UK education as well as undermine legitimate immigration control, but it is important to understand that the way the Government and UKBA have gone about their wider changes have hit legitimate universities and colleges that are an enormously important source of intellectual capital, jobs and prosperity, both now and for the future, that is worth tens of billions of pounds.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) mentioned Oxford university. Its briefing for this debate points out:
“The cumulative and frequent changes to Tier 4 policy guidance over the last few years have created increased anxiety amongst our current and prospective student body especially when some of the rule changes were applied retrospectively.”
It goes on to say:
“We have received feedback and comments from prospective students and institutions overseas about the numerous UKBA rule changes over the last few years that indicate it may be a determining factor in students choosing to study elsewhere.”
The Government have to understand that those damaging effects have an impact at a time of intense international competition, in particular for the highest calibre of undergraduates, post-graduates and researchers. The funding shortfall for postgraduates, especially compared with the United States, makes it an increasing challenge to recruit and retain the best. Oxford university makes it clear that it supports the recommendations of the Select Committee reports referred to in the motion.
Let us also recognise that the damaging impact of Government policy has not been confined to universities and university students. Indeed, the effects have been even more serious for independent colleges, whose educational and economic contribution rarely gets the credit it deserves, and seems to be totally ignored by this Government. It is deeply ironic that a Government with an ideological obsession about liberating schools for home students from state control are hammering private colleges that support thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of overseas earnings.
As a fellow Oxford MP, the right hon. Gentleman will know that I share some of his concerns about student reforms, but it is important that the debate continues with factual information. The 22% figure quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) is based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and is used in both the Universities UK and Million+ briefings. The points that he was just making are important, because the falls we have seen are in the FE college and private college sectors. The main concerns from the university have been about the frequent changes to student visas, which are much more of a difficulty for both students and the university. Perhaps he might like to comment on those issues, as they are the main challenges that are actually faced by the university’s students.
I will take those comments as warm and strong support for the points I have made about the damage the changes to the visa regime have done.
The Government are denying independent colleges a level playing field and disadvantaging them in a number of respects. These include: the 2011 two-year cap on international student numbers; all the uncertainties of the twice-yearly Highly Trusted Sponsor renewal application; the denial of part-time work for students either in term time or holidays; student exclusion from the new post-study work schemes for PhD and MBA graduates; and the fact that unlike university students, PhD students at independent colleges are not exempt from Tier 4’s five-year time limit, so they cannot do a first degree in the UK before their PhD.
It is little surprising that international student enrolments on higher education courses at independent colleges fell by over 70% between 2011 and 2012, with a fall of 46% in college sector visas for the year ending March 2013. This has destroyed tens—possibly hundreds—of college businesses, cost thousands of jobs and resulted in a loss of income to the families accommodating students and to the local businesses and communities within which they spend their money.
I strongly support the motion. I hope that the Government will listen to the Select Committees that have come to the same view and take international students out of the migrations statistics used to steer UK immigration policy. I hope that Ministers will remove the unfair penalties imposed on independent colleges, work in partnership with them to develop longer-term, highly trusted accreditation and promote the contribution these colleges make. I also urge them more generally to think further and positively about how to encourage, not discourage, overseas students at all levels who want to come here, as those students invigorate universities and other education institutions and generate lots of overseas earnings, jobs and economic demand, which people here desperately need. Doing so would rebuild Britain’s reputation in the world as somewhere that welcomes international students and researchers and recognises their enormous potential contribution to our culture and economy—which, let us remember, is to the benefit of us all.
In the media, international students at our universities are generally seen though one of two lenses: the positive one is that they are a cash-cow, premium product that historically has cross-subsidised domestic students in our universities; the negative one is that, because of this, they might end up getting too many places at our universities, thus keeping out some of our home-grown talent. Both are completely the wrong way of thinking about international students. This is a huge growth market in the world and vital to our economic growth.
Education ought to be for us a focus sector, alongside life sciences, advanced manufacturing, the digital and creative industries, professional services and tourism. It is also a market in which, thankfully, we have strong competitive advantages. We have some of the best brand names in the business: Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Birmingham, Manchester, Queen’s Belfast, the London School of Economics—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I can name check others, if anyone wants me to.
All in all, about one fifth of the top 100 universities and about one fifth of the top 50 business schools in the world are ours, and of course we have that great asset, the English language.
The sector has other advantages. The first and most obvious is export earnings and the jobs it supports in this country, but it is also important in the battle for talent, in bringing into the country the people we need to help our economy succeed. It also helps with what people have called soft power—or, as I would prefer to describe it, the promotion of Britain abroad and the fostering of business and cultural links throughout the world.
The sector has several secondary advantages. For one, unusually among the key growth sectors, its employment and economic growth prospects are well distributed throughout the UK, not concentrated in one place, such as London. Secondly, university rankings depend on having a certain proportion of foreign students at a university, because international rankings consider that if a university is not good enough to attract foreign students, it is probably not very good. Thirdly, having a vibrant, cosmopolitan HE sector helps to reinforce several other growth strategy objectives, particularly to bring forward research and development in key sectors and to make this country the headquarters location of choice for multinationals.
As many hon. Members have said, this is a growing world market. In 1980, about 1 million students were enrolled in institutions outside their country of origin, but by 2010 that figure was 3.3 million. We know that more recently the compound annual growth rate trend—obviously it has moved a bit in the last couple of years—has been about 7%, which is a strong growth rate for an attractive industry. According to the McKinsey report on the seven long-term priorities for the UK, if we can hold our share—grow it as the market grows—and harvest just half of the benefit, it would be worth an additional 80,000 jobs in the country by 2030.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that holding that share is becoming more difficult, because of the challenge from countries such as Australia and Canada, and that the Government should be strengthening our universities’ ability to attract overseas students, not making it more difficult, as they are doing at present?
The hon. Lady brilliantly anticipates my next point. Of course, she is absolutely correct. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) said, we are, to coin a phrase, in a global race, and we are not the only ones who have spotted that this is an attractive sector and who are doing things differently, as we will continue to do in order to protect and grow our own share. The most obvious competitive set are the Anglophone countries, led by the United States, but including Canada and Australia. Increasingly, however, non-English speaking countries are offering English-speaking courses. The third competitor is potentially the biggest, and that is the choice of staying at home. In China, India, Nigeria and elsewhere in the world, there is a big business opportunity in attracting students from those countries to stay in institutions there. So, yes, we have to redouble our efforts all the time in order not only to forge ahead, but just to hold our own.
We should be talking always about quality higher education, pre-higher education preparation and certified colleges. These institutions should not be selling visas; they must be selling education, and we know that there have been recent substantial abuses. The National Audit Office says that in 2009 up to 50,000 alleged students were here primarily to work, rather than study. We had this cadre of serial students who were forever renewing their visas without showing any substantial progress in their studies. Clearly, if we are serious about curbing immigration in what has become a chaotic situation and about reducing the numbers and getting rid of abuse, we have to tackle the student visa route.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the abuses under the old system, but there are two sides to tackling the problem—tightening up the rules for people coming in, and removing those abusing the system—but the NAO concluded that not enough was being done in the latter department. Does he agree that the Government need to make that more of a priority?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It must indeed be a clear priority.
I welcome the action that the Government have taken. I do not think that everyone would agree, but I welcome the removal of the blanket two-year right to work for all graduates, because it looked a bit too much like a bribe to sweeten the degree. There is a role for it, however, in certain circumstances and categories, such as in subjects where there is a shortage—we talked about STEM subjects earlier—and for MBA students, who, by definition, will already have worked for several years and have done their first degree and who are valuable and mobile students.
I welcome the removal of the right to work for private college students, the requirement to show real academic progress and, of course, the closure of bogus colleges. I also acknowledge that the Government have put in place a sensible and proportionate regime for student visitors. A lot of people have thrown statistics around, but overall it appears that the falls in the numbers have been concentrated primarily in those sectors and parts of the market where abuse was most prevalent. I also welcome the fact that there is no cap on the numbers of people coming to university. It is right that the Prime Minister goes out and gives that message, as we saw him doing recently at the KPMG offices—I think—in India, but it is a constant battle against possible perceptions. For example, the message on MBA student blogs in India is that Britain is not as welcoming a place—or not welcoming at all—as it once was.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason for that ongoing perception might be the efficiency, or lack thereof, of in-country UK Border Agency officials? With the expansion of credibility interviews, that will only increase. Some of the reports that I have heard about the reasons for people being turned down at interview—those where the decision was later overturned at appeal—are concerning. Does he agree that if we are to increase the caution with which we agree to visa applications, we should also increase the efficiency of UKBA in-country?
As always, my hon. Friend makes her point clearly and well. I do not have enough knowledge about the interview to comment, but overall, with or without a cap, and whatever happened last year or this year—we know that there is no cap, and we know that the figures look broadly okay—it nevertheless remains the case that, given the intense scrutiny to which immigration numbers will rightly be subjected, how students are treated in those statistics must inevitably affect the extent to which we as a country seize this market opportunity in the years ahead.
In one way it is blindingly obvious, but it is worth saying that not every student adds to immigration. In the steady state, so long as we are reasonably good at counting people leaving as well as those coming—
We took over from Labour.
So long as we are reasonably good at that, it is only growth in the numbers that will add to immigration. However, I would ask the Minister to look again and consider counting people towards net immigration only at the point at which they settle. The key counter-argument—in some ways it is quite strong—is that a student is a human being like any other, and if there is a net increase in their numbers, that is an increase in net immigration, which will lead to the same strain on housing, public services and so on as with any other type of immigration. I would argue that that is not quite true. I do not want to sound trivial about it, but one could argue, with some sense, that students do not take up quite as much residential living space as others and, being younger on average, they are—[Interruption.] I do not mean that students are smaller. I myself was thinner as an undergraduate—that is history—but I was thinking more about housing. As younger people, typically, students are probably less likely than the average person to make demands on the national health service, places at primary schools and so on.
I am conscious of the time and I do not want to get into a long debate about this, but any person in this country will be consuming public services to some extent—for example, roads—and is financed by the rest of us. In any case, broadly speaking we are making the same points.
We could also mitigate those effects. Given that housing is a particular issue, we could do that by requiring universities that want to expand to provide additional accommodation. Local areas that want to benefit from such economic growth should also have to be willing to accept the provision of extra accommodation, over and above residential housing.
The truth is that there are downsides—additional strains and calls on public resources and residential accommodation—to having more people in the country. It is not without cost; it is a choice to be made. We have to weigh up the costs and downsides against the benefits that so many people have talked about—the revenues, the export earnings, the jobs that are created, the talent we can bring to this country and the strengthening of our links around the world. If, having made that calculation, we decide that this should be a focus area in contributing to our economic growth—I think the case is very strong —we must be bold in seizing that opportunity.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) on opening this important debate, and I congratulate him and others on securing it.
The wording of the motion says it all. Five parliamentary Committees—the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons, as well as the Science and Technology Committee and the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education in the other place—have all arrived at the same conclusion and the same recommendation. They are united in their belief—it is a considered belief, based on the vast amount of evidence they have taken—that including students in net migration numbers is the wrong thing to do, for a number of reasons, and that the Government should reverse that decision. The reason for that belief is obvious. The students we are talking about are not migrant workers. They have paid to come to the UK to study. They have chosen to invest in the UK and are sponsored to remain only for the period of their studies.
I speak as an MP for a constituency that benefits from the positive contribution that overseas students can make to university life and the wider community. According to the University of Sunderland’s annual review, more than 2,600 overseas students were enrolled in taught undergraduate or postgraduate courses last year. What does that mean for the university and the wider city? Those students are paying their fees, which are crucial to the university as a means of investing in the facilities and opportunities they can provide to all students, particularly as grants are repeatedly cut, but there are wider benefits too. Those students need places to live and therefore pay rent to local private landlords, usually through local letting agents. Those students need to eat and therefore spend money in local shops and restaurants. They probably need coats and gloves—they have probably also needed wellies over the last couple of years—to deal with the harsh north-east weather, and they will obviously buy those in local shops. Those students will also want to have a good time, as do students the world over, spending money in local cinemas, bars and clubs, and going to gigs, football matches and so on. They might even need books and stationery, which they will buy from local bookshops and stationers.
According to evidence that the university submitted to the Home Affairs Committee when it considered this issue in 2011, overseas students bring an income to the university of £15 million in tuition fees and £1.5 million in accommodation fees. The university estimated the additional income to the city to be around £10 million a year. That figure is probably a conservative estimate, given that it amounts to only £385 a month or so for each student, and we know that many international students who come to the UK are from pretty wealthy families—after all, how else would they afford the large up-front fees that they have to pay? That is probably reflected in the revised estimate that I recently received from the university, of £37 million of total benefit.
When international students come to the University of Sunderland, they do not just bring their wallets; they bring a wealth of culture, which adds to the diversity of the university’s campus. That can be seen in the development of the various student societies—they include the Hong Kong and Malaysian society, the Nigerian society, and the middle east and north Africa group, to name but a few—but it is a two-way street. The university encourages international students to experience the culture that the north-east has to offer, such as Washington old hall in my constituency, which has an obvious attraction for students from the United States, and the various other cultural and historical activities that the city of Sunderland and the whole region have to offer.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about students in the north-east adding to diversity—a diversity that would not necessarily exist without them. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of new entrants—particularly new international student entrants—is reducing. Does she agree that the Government are being a bit complacent and are not factoring in the positive contributions that students make to areas such as ours?
That is exactly the nub of the matter. We have to factor in those extra elements, including the contribution that such students make to the local economy, as well as—I will come to this point—the long-term benefits from those relationships and links in the years to come.
Another great project at Sunderland university is the international buddying programme, in which students at the university pair up with international students to provide them with advice on what they can experience in the region. The programme enriches the experiences not only of the international students but of their buddies from this country. When the students are visiting regional tourist attractions such as Washington old hall or Durham cathedral, they inevitably spend money in the local and regional economy.
I understand that some programmes run by the student union have involved international students volunteering with local community organisations such as Age UK. This all contributes to giving students a great experience while they are over here, which means that they will develop an affinity with the UK, and with the city and region in which they stay. We have to remember that many of these students come from well-connected families, and that among them will be the political leaders and captains of industry of tomorrow. It is therefore crucial to our long-term diplomatic and economic relationships with their home countries that we warmly welcome these young people, rather than making them feel unwanted, as this Government are undoubtedly doing at the moment.
That is particularly important in the north-east, where international links and trade and exports are fundamental parts of the economy. The independent “North-east Economic Review” recently commissioned by the local enterprise partnership and authored by my noble colleague Lord Adonis reported that the north-east is one of the leading exporting areas of the UK, with over 1,500 companies exporting goods. In 2011 and 2012, it was the only region in England to achieve a positive balance of trade in goods, with figures of £2.5 billion in 2011 and £4.8 billion in 2012. So we do well, but we are reliant in many ways on orders and investment from overseas companies. The role that our universities play in keeping and creating those relationships is crucial.
One country that often comes up when we talk about the need to get more people over to the UK is China. The University of Sunderland works hard to attract Chinese students, as do other higher education institutions. I was lucky enough to visit China in September 2011. I visited the offices of the University of Sunderland in Beijing, where I was able to talk to the local staff there about the work they do. Their biggest concerns by far were the new visa requirements, coupled with the way in which some Chinese students they had recruited were treated at customs when they arrived here in the UK.
Both those factors are a source of humiliation to students. What will happen when word gets out that the UK does not want them and that it will put them through that kind of experience? Students who would have come to the UK, and who might well have come to Sunderland, will go elsewhere in the world. They want to learn and develop their English, and they will go to the USA, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, all of which exclude students from their migrant figures and are currently welcoming them with open arms. Those countries are benefiting from our loss.
While I was in China I also visited Suzhou, where the University of Liverpool has established a joint campus with a local university, with the aim of providing opportunities for UK students to visit an economically and culturally significant area of China as well as providing a form of embassy or advert for its UK institution. I met a young man from Suzhou who had been studying computer science at Liverpool and is now doing his postgraduate qualification at University College London. That shows that the process definitely works. The development of more such partnerships and recruitment drives in a country with which we desperately need to build links is surely at risk, given the way in which this Government’s attitude towards overseas students is now seen in that country, and undoubtedly in others.
The University of Sunderland posed two questions to me, which I believe cut to the heart of this debate. I would be grateful if the Minister could address them in his response—if indeed he is listening to what I am saying. First, can the Government meet their net migration targets without reducing the number of international students coming to study at British universities? My suspicion is that they probably cannot, and are therefore knowingly and willingly accepting the devastating economic impact that this policy will have on localities and regions, particularly those with a track record of success in global enterprise.
Secondly, what is more important to this Government: economic growth and sustainability or a falsely painted picture of immigration and immigrants that includes those who choose to come and invest in the UK and bring substantial short and long-term economic and social advantage to our country? I am sure the Minister will say that it is the former, but actions speak louder than words, and the actions of this Government firmly suggest that their priority is political headlines, rather than what is right for our higher education sector and for the country.
Of course we must tackle bogus colleges and bogus students. Everyone agrees on that. I am afraid, however, that such action is being used as a smokescreen to justify this damaging and short-sighted policy. Well, the Government are fooling nobody. We all know that this is about using overseas students to reduce the net migration figures in order to fulfil a promise made by the Prime Minister that he would otherwise be unable to fulfil. That is a disgrace, and it must stop. I hope that this debate will spur a change in policy and a more grown-up and thought-through approach. This Government are well-practised in the art of the U-turn, and I hope that we will see one being performed on this issue sooner rather than later, before too much more damage is done to our universities and our international reputation.
I am pleased that we are having this debate, as it will enable us to draw attention to a number of issues relating to overseas students in this country. We should start from the premise that the students who come here to study and work are a big help to our economy, to local economies and to the experience of UK students in our higher education institutions.
London First, in calling for the removal of students from the UK migration target, states:
“Taking students out of the migration target would be the strongest positive message that the government could send out but, if this remains too politically difficult, then a more measured and consistent approach to addressing applications for visas would be a good first step.”
Many of us have met students in other countries who are considering coming to the UK to study, and discovered that they are put off by a number of factors. One is the complication and cost of applying for a visa, as well as the delays that often occur in that process. I know that the Minister is aware of those problems, and I look forward to hearing his response to this point. Those students are also put off by the image that has been created by the treatment of overseas students here.
I am not going to defend the bogus colleges that purported to teach the English language to people in London and other cities. They often short-changed their students, many of whom ended up as victims of a particularly nasty system. It is right to prosecute those who were perpetrating that fraud against those students, but we should have more sympathy with those genuine students who came here thinking that they were going to be taught English only to find that their college was a sham. They lost out, and some of them were deported even though they had done nothing wrong. Behind every statistic lies a human story, and we should look at the human story as well as the overall statistics when we deal with these issues.
The National Union of Students has pointed out in its advice on this debate that, following a perception study, 40% of respondents to an NUS survey of 909 international students carried out last year said that they would not advise a friend or relative from their home country to come to the UK to study. We cannot afford that perception to be spread abroad. This debate is therefore important, and the Minister’s response to it and the way in which he handles this issue are possibly even more important. It we want to remain a place to which students want to come, we will have to ensure that they are treated properly and that they are allowed to work at the end of their course, particularly if they pursued a semi-vocational or professional qualification. If they cannot complete a period of work at the end of their course, the prospect of studying here will be less attractive and the prospect of studying elsewhere will become more so. The UK loses out as a result.
As I said in a couple of interventions, I represent a constituency that includes London Metropolitan university, which has been put through the mill in media treatment and with funding problems like no other university in this country, so I would like to say a few things in its support. As a university, it is an amalgamation of many institutions, as most of them are, and it has given many people the huge opportunity to become the first in their family history to get into higher education. It has an unprecedented record of bringing in students from minority ethic communities and diverse backgrounds, and it should be applauded and complimented for that.
Although the name is relatively new, London Metropolitan university is an amalgamation of a number of local institutions in north-east London that started serving the community in 1848. It is not exactly a Johnny-come-lately, although of course the situation has changed a great deal. Two things have happened. First, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided some years ago to fine the university a great deal of money, but after a lot of representations, that money is now being repaid and the university is coping with that.
Secondly, on 29 August last year, it had revoked its tier 4 licence and highly trusted status required to recruit non-European Economic Area students. That placed 2,000 international students at risk, including the current student union president and members of the student union executive. A survey done by the United Kingdom Border Agency claimed that there was a lack of attendance and monitoring, insufficient English language testing and overstaying of student visas. The students concerned were told that they had 60 days to find another institution or they would have to return to their own country. That resulted in a great deal of debate, including an urgent question in this Chamber and statements from the Government. The university sought High Court action against UKBA and was granted a hearing last September, when Mr Justice Irwin granted an order allowing all current international students to stay at the university until the end of the academic year 2013; judicial reviews are still continuing.
Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion and negotiation between UKBA and the university, and procedures have been put in place. My concern was that a lot of wholly innocent international students were put under a great deal of stress and pressure. The university was not allowed to recruit international students for the forthcoming academic year, and that obviously has an impact on the local economy and on the university itself. I hope that the Minister can provide us with some hope—if not here today, perhaps by correspondence—that the negotiations will result in the revocation of the original ban on recruitment and that a number of overseas students can be recruited in the forthcoming academic year.
I would be grateful if the Minister would answer some brief questions. A number of students who transferred to other institutions last September—nine months ago—still await a decision on their visa applications even though they were submitted in good time. Two additional cases, where students who completed their studies in February 2013 and put in applications for visa extensions, are still pending and have not been answered. That is a very long time to wait. In addition, there are many students who are no longer in contact with the London Met university, yet the Home Office was supposed to establish a casework team in Sheffield to deal with applications from both current and former students of London Met. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain exactly what has happened about that; is the Home Office still in touch with those students?
I want London Met to be a successful university. I want it to be able to recruit international students as it did before, and I want those students to benefit from the experience of living in north and east London while they are studying there. I also want to highlight all that they bring to the university and all that they—and, indeed, the local economy—gain from it. The damage done to the international reputation of higher education by the handling of London Met is pretty serious indeed, on top of all the other problems that the Select Committee has rightly pointed out. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me how many students have actually been removed from the country as a result of the decisions concerning London Met.
The Home Office uses the words “probationary licence granted” for the restoration of tier 4 status, but there is nothing in legislation that talks about probationary licences. An institution either has tier 4 status grade A or a most-trusted status, which we obviously hope will be restored. I do not know where the word “probationary” comes from. Is a new point of law being introduced?
Finally, will the Minister provide assurances that the 20 London Met students who submitted passports nine months ago and who now wish to leave the country will receive an answer in the next 28 days? In all fairness, those students spent a great deal of money coming to this country, many of them are from poor families who scrimped and saved to send them here, and they had to go through a dreadful experience. We want to move on. We want international students back at the university and the university to be thriving and providing good-quality education. That is the message I want to give. Our local community benefits from that university, and it frequently benefits from the community when community events and many other things are held there. We want it to be a good place of learning. Every colleague who represents a constituency with a university or a higher education institution in it wants that for those institutions. It is up to the Minister to ensure that we continue to recruit overseas students and that they benefit from their learning experience in this country.
Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and all other Members who signed up to ensure that we had this afternoon’s debate. It is perhaps a sort of irony that the quality of the debate has been high, with an enormous degree of unanimity on the issues. I suspect that if the Chamber had been fuller, the debate might have been more partisan and there might have been less unanimity, but the debate we have had is a tribute to the way in which the argument has been advanced in several Select Committees and through the Select Committee process itself. Sometimes if we just look rationally at the facts, it is easier to reach a cross-party position.
I studied abroad. I did part of my primary education in Spain; I studied theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Argentina; so I understand the complications and difficulties of studying in other countries. I note that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), of whom I am particularly fond, referred to Erasmus, talking about what has happened since Erasmus came here in the 16th century. It is interesting, because when Erasmus first came here to study at Cambridge university in 1506, he did not complete a whole year so I do not think he would have been included in the net migration target. When he came again, in 1511, staying until 1515, he taught as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge university. In that case, he would have come here under the tier 2 visa, which would have been completely different and not the subject of this afternoon’s debate.
That is a point well made.
Another hon. Member—I cannot remember who it was—referred to the fact that many Heads of State from around the world have studied in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] It was the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who speaks sanely and sensibly on many of these issues. As he said, some studied at Sandhurst, as many have been military leaders as well. It must surely be good, in terms of our soft power, that the Heads of State of Denmark, Portugal, Iceland, Norway, Turkey and many other countries have studied in the United Kingdom.
I would also point to those who have had a more courageous political career, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, and, for that matter, to the large number of people who have come to the United Kingdom, studied here, stayed on and ended up teaching here, gaining Nobel prizes in classic instances such as Sydney Brenner, César Milstein and Aaron Klug. Perhaps most interesting of all, T S Eliot, now thought of as the quintessentially British poet of the 20th century, was originally born in the United States of America, came to study here at the beginning of the first world war and ended up staying here for the rest of his life. Perhaps it was because he had the experience of being a migrant student that he ended up writing so much about travelling and the difficulty of living in other cultures.
The hon. Gentleman just mentioned Sandhurst, and I ask him not to forget the royal naval training college at Darmouth and the RAF training college at Cranwell, which I attended. During my flight officer training we often thought it was the Omani officer, with the overseas costs, who actually funded the training costs of the British RAF officer cadets.
Indeed, that is an important point. If we look at the number of people from Latin American militaries—air force, navy or army—who have historically had the Prussian tradition of military and then come to the UK to train in a British environment and completely changed their attitude towards democracy and the way in which the military operate in a democratic society, we see another positive aspect of people coming from other parts of the world to study here.
Many hon. Members have rightly referred to the economic benefit of international students coming to study in this country. The Government estimate in 2009, produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was that this country’s higher education exports came to a value of some £8 billion and could rise to £16.9 billion by 2025. That is one of the most significant areas of growth potential in the economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, the University of Sheffield has produced an important report on the economic benefits that can arise from international students coming here. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) referred to the importance to the north-east of not only people studying and paying for their courses—many British people do not understand that international students pay fully for their course and, indeed, pay over the odds compared with British people, doing so in advance—but all the other benefits that come to the local economy. According to the University of Sheffield’s study, the relevant figure for Sheffield is £120 million a year.
In addition, we need to consider the wide range of subjects studied. Some people want to say, “It is just about the brightest and the best coming to the United Kingdom.” I wholly agree with those who have said that it was absolutely right for the Government to deal with issue of bogus colleges, but it is not just university degrees at Oxford and Cambridge that we should be concerned with; this is also about postgraduate studies at many different universities and the English language. I would prefer people who are learning English around the world to learn about taps, not faucets, and about pavements, not sidewalks, because I would prefer them to have a British understanding of the English language and get it from the horse’s mouth.
Many schools and universities have valued enormously exchange students coming to the United Kingdom, and they are important in relation to the shorter-term student visitor visa. There is not only an economic advantage to consider, but a social advantage, in terms of, the quality of the education students are able to get. If they are studying international politics or history and people come with completely different experiences from elsewhere in the world, that enlivens, informs and improves the quality of the education of British students in universities and colleges. Also, this is about ensuring that we provide the strongest possible opportunity for overseas students to develop their understanding of what it is like to be in Britain and to do business in Britain. We hope that they will then do greater business with us further in the future.
I would also point out that, as many hon. Members have said, this is an area of migration—if we want to term it as such—that is warmly welcomed and accepted by the British public. Leaving aside the matter of bogus colleges, where foreigners were exploited and not given a proper education, and British taxpayers were exploited because proper controls were not in place, it is warmly accepted in this country that international students are important for our economy. If we are to prosper in the future as a country that is in “a global race”, to use the Prime Minister’s term, we have to be able to compete for international students—for that market around the world.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that not only have we had bogus colleges, but quite a lot of colleges have provided relatively low-value courses, be they in business, accounting or IT, where the incentive of being able to work part-time, stay on to work afterwards, bring dependants and potentially stay on has been much of the reason why international students have stayed, and that the Government have been right to crack down on that?
I want to see more evidence of precisely what the hon. Gentleman mentions. I believe he has been in his Committee all afternoon, so I understand why he has not been able to take part in the whole of this debate, which is a shame. I merely wish to cite the Government’s own Home Office paper from this year, “The Migrant Journey”, which showed that just 1% of students who came here in 2006 were permanently residing here five years later. So those myths that have sometimes grown up of—[Interruption.] There are others who are still studying and who have gone on to study other courses, but according to the Home Office’s own report only 1% are permanently residing. Some of the myths that have been mentioned in previous debates about 20% or 30% of students staying on afterwards are misguided.
I wish briefly to discuss the Government’s record. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) referred to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Its figures showed, contrary to the figures often provided by the Government, that the number of first-year, non-EU, new-entrant students at universities was down by 0.4% in 2011-12. In particular, the number of postgraduate new entrants has gone down from 105,195 to 103,150, which is potentially a worrying trend that we need to examine for the future because it is the first time there has been a fall in those figures for a decade—in effect, for all the time that similar statistics have been available.
As several hon. Members said, the number of students coming from India has fallen by some 8,000. That number may have been made up for by the number coming from China, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said, it was a sign of the Government’s “forked-tonguedness” or two-facedness that the Prime Minister actually had to go to India to say that there is no cap on international students coming to the United Kingdom. There may not be a legal cap, but it certainly feels as if there is a cap, and the Government have to address that. As the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said, if this is a growing market, we need to be holding our market share, and that means advancing and not stepping backwards. I would like us to increase our market share, because we have a unique and very valuable offer, and this would be good for the British economy. I worry that the way the Government’s immigration target is crafted has made that more difficult for us to achieve.
All the estimates show a significant fall in Britain’s attractiveness as a place for study, while Australia and Canada have seen dramatic improvements in their attractiveness. One Australian who works in this business told me recently, “I am delighted at what your Government are doing, because you are giving us lots of business.” That should really worry the Government.
I wish to raise one other minor point, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned and which relates to the number of overseas students who come to study degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths. That is the area in which we saw the most significant drop—8%—in 2011-12 in the number of non-EU new-entrant students coming to the UK. That must worry us, because it will affect our future competitiveness and productivity.
I now want to ask the Minister about London Metropolitan university. On 3 September 2012, while responding to an urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)— the Minister’s predecessor—said that more than 60% of students at London Met were involved in the “problems” of dubious education and were not proper students. He added:
“It was not a small, isolated number of students; the sampling showed significant systemic problems throughout.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 26.]
I should have thought that if that had been the case, a significant number of people would have been removed from the country.
That one bovver-booted intervention, made at a time of the year—the autumn—when many people were coming to study in the United Kingdom, sent a message around the world that Britain was not open for business. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us precisely how many students from London Metropolitan university were deemed to be “not proper students” and have been removed from the country. If he cannot do so now, perhaps he will write to me.
In his report on tier 4 visas, John Vine said:
“We found a potential risk of non-genuine students opting to apply for Student (Visitor) visas”,
which, he said,
“are not subject to the same stringent rules that are applied to Tier 4… The Agency needs to be alert to this to ensure that this route is not exploited in the future.”
The dramatic increase in the number of people applying to study shorter courses is almost in direct proportion to the fall in the number applying for tier 4 visas. I fear that a displacement activity may be taking place, and I think there is a danger that unless we impose far more significant controls on shorter-term visas, they will be open to abuse.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and others who signed the motion asking for the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for deciding that it was an appropriate use of time in the Chamber. It has been a very good debate.
Let me start, in an unashamedly positive way, by quoting from the letter that the hon. Member for West Bromwich West received from the Prime Minister earlier this year in response to his own letter.
“The UK has a fantastic offer for international students. Those with the right qualifications, enough money”
—obviously they would need enough to pay for their courses—
“and a good level of English can study here, with no annual limit on numbers. University students can work part-time and do work placements during their studies. When they finish they can stay, providing they get a job paying £20,000”
“a year or more, or as a Graduate Entrepreneur, under the first scheme of its kind in the world.”
The Prime Minister confirmed:
“The number coming to our universities is up.”
He also confirmed, importantly—and, to be fair, a number of Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged this—that there was no cap, and that there would be no cap, on the number of students coming to the UK.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I finish this point before I give way to him. I think I know what he is going to say, because I took careful note of what he and others said earlier. Let me deal with what I think he is going to say, and if I am wrong I will give way to him later.
I believe that we have a very positive story to tell. I know that newspapers do not always report a positive story, but Ministers try to convey a positive message and, indeed, Members on both sides of the House have tried to do that today.
Let me make some progress first.
The Government have been clear about the need to bring control to the immigration system, but we have also been clear about our wish to welcome those whom we want in the country. A common view, which many Members will share, was expressed particularly well by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who said that his constituents had voiced no concern either about those who come here to study at our excellent universities, or about those who come here to do highly skilled jobs in business. I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we have deliberately designed our system to attract people like that, and to deter those who are not coming to work in skilled occupations, or who are coming for other reasons.
The statistics show that we have achieved that selective balance. The number of university students and the number of people working in skilled jobs have risen. However, as my hon. Friend said, it should also be borne in mind that our constituents are anxious for us to have some control over the system. We must design a system that attracts the best and the brightest—to use the buzz words—from around the world to study, and appeals to global companies based in Britain that want to import some of their engineers and senior managers for a certain period to run their businesses, while also deterring those who will bring no benefit to the United Kingdom.
As Lord Mandelson has said, the previous Government did not have a controlled system. Indeed, they had a completely uncontrolled system: they just went out grabbing people from around the world. We have been determined not to overreact to that, but also to ensure that we have a system that focuses on the right people coming to Britain.
I was expecting the Minister to anticipate my question and respond to it, but as he has not, let me ask it. It is about the cap. Is it not disingenuous, and the sort of misuse of language that brings no credit to this House, when we say on the one hand that there is no cap on the number of students coming, and on the other that we have a target to reduce the number of people coming and students are included in that?
I do not agree, for the following reason. The point was best made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). There are two aspects to this. First, over a period, international students who come here to study and then go back to their home country make no contribution to net migration at all, because they come to Britain and then leave. In a steady state, therefore, they make no contribution to net migration at all. My hon. Friend is right, however, that in a growing market, as a consequence of the difference between those coming in a year and those leaving in that year, there will be a gap, but it is only the gap that contributes to net migration, not the total number.
One of the complexities here is that the data on those leaving are not brilliant. The Office for National Statistics, which is independent and which measures the numbers of people coming to and leaving Britain, measures those coming to study, but does not currently measure those who were studying and left. One of the improvements it has made to its system is that it is now starting to do that, and we will get the first of those statistics in August, I think. Coming back to a point that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made, that will give us a much clearer picture of how many students do leave each year, and we will then get a much clearer idea of the impact of student numbers on net migration. It is worth remembering that a lot of genuine students are still in the UK quite a considerable time after their arrival. According to one study quoted by Opposition Members, about 20% of former international students are still in the UK although they might not have decided to settle here permanently.
The other important point shows why we need a robust system. The NAO study has been quoted several times. In the past there were significant numbers of purported students who were not here to study, but who were working in low-skilled jobs, and significant numbers of students were renewing their visas over a period of time without any academic progression at all. It does no credit to our immigration system or our genuine academic institutions that such abuse is possible. We must deal with that, as well as welcome those we want to welcome to Britain.
I want to relay to the Minister my experiences and those of my constituents in respect of those moving from one course to a higher course who need to renew a visa. It is taking at least three months, and during that time the student has no access to their passport and cannot travel for academic or personal reasons. Is the Minister really satisfied that that is good enough? Will he put more resources into this whole area of endeavour in the Home Office?
The point the right hon. Lady makes about in-country performance is absolutely right; it is true that the performance in the last financial year of what was the UK Border Agency was not good enough, as I know very well from conversations and correspondence with Members. Out-of-country performance has remained very good, however. Part of the reason why the Home Secretary made the changes she has made to the border agency was to fix the problems in the UK visas and immigration part of the business. The good news is that we have put a lot of resource and effort into turning that around, and the performance of the Home Office for in-country operations—which used to be a UKBA responsibility—has got immeasurably better. The latest figures are much better. It has taken some time to do that, but I ask the right hon. Lady to let me know of any specific outstanding cases, and I will look at them and see if there is anything we can do.
The Minister slipped in the words “academic progression”. I fully understand why, in the vast majority of cases, someone would want to go from an undergraduate degree to a postgraduate degree and so on, but there are cases, in particular for vocations and some STEM degrees, where a student who had first done an undergraduate degree in their home country might want to come to the UK to study for another undergraduate degree, which would not count as academic progression. I worry that people might therefore be being excluded who would be perfectly decent and sensible to have studying here.
I was referring to people who, as I have seen when we have removed them, have been in the UK for a decade or more, perpetually renewing a student visa and clearly making no progress. That is an abuse of the system. We were talking about that, not about trying to micromanage someone’s academic career.
Let me do something that I cannot always do and give some positive news to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about London Metropolitan university. I will not rehearse the past in great detail, but I have put a lot of work into this—it happened just about the time at which I was given this job and at which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) became the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice—and I am absolutely convinced that the UK Border Agency, as it was, took exactly the right decision to revoke London Metropolitan university’s sponsor licence. It was not fulfilling its responsibilities by any measure. Nobody in the sector has defended it and its behaviour was, I am afraid, well known.
The positive news, which shows that the system works, is that we have worked closely with London Metropolitan university and it has made significant improvements to its system and to the administration of how it delivers on its requirements. It has now been awarded an A-rated sponsor licence, which means it can sponsor international students, and it has 12 months to build up a track record and apply again for highly trusted sponsor status. That is very positive. The Home Office has worked very closely with the university—[Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Rhondda is asking how many students there are. The university can recruit only 15% of the number it could originally have while it is an A-rated sponsor.
The hon. Member for Islington North asked me about this subject first. I do not have the specific details of all the students that were there and what has happened to them, but we have those data because we wrote to every single one. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, since the university is in his constituency, and I will put a copy of my reply in the Library—[Interruption.] I will also send a copy to the hon. Member for Rhondda and I will include the details of how many have left the country.
I am grateful for that information and look forward to receiving the Minister’s letter. Does this mean that students who started their second year last September will now be able to complete the third year of a three-year degree course and that we are back on track towards getting highly trusted status restored in a year’s time?
It might be more sensible if, rather than trying to answer a lot of specific questions, I set out the detail about the university when I write to the hon. Gentleman. As I said, I shall copy the letter to the hon. Member for Rhondda and will put it in the Library so that other Members can see it. The story is positive, as the university has started to deliver on its compliance requirements.
The Home Office is now working closely with universities and Universities UK on a co-regulation initiative to set out their responsibilities clearly for them. We have had a number of workshops with those universities and they have found that very helpful. I have certainly had positive feedback from UUK, the Russell Group and individual universities I have visited, and they have seen a change in their relationship with the Home Office. It is important that we continue to improve that and I have asked the Home Office to continue to do so.
On the theme of positive news, will the Minister join me in welcoming the good news from the award-winning Huddersfield university, which saw its number of international students increase from 1,430 in 2010-11 to 1,845 in the last academic year, an increase of 29%? It is an award-winning university and it contributes massively not only to Huddersfield but to growth and enterprise in the whole of Yorkshire and the north of England.
That is a helpful point, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members—for example, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) told us about sharp increases in the number of international students at her local university.
As my final point—I do not want to test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will touch on the student visitor visa route, on which the hon. Member for Rhondda expressed two slightly different views. First, he said he was pleased that international students are coming here on shorter courses, but then he voiced some concerns. I hope he noticed that yesterday we published some detailed research that I think makes it clear that the visitor route is being used exactly as intended. It is attracting high-value, low-risk migrants who contribute positively to economic growth; in large part, they attend institutions that are accredited by bodies approved by the Home Office, and most are doing English language programmes or university exchanges. There is literally no evidence of displacement from tier 4 into the student visitor route. The number of students from countries where we have seen abuse under tier 4 and where we have cracked down on that abuse is rising in single figures—fewer than 10—so there is no evidence of further abuse, which I think is very positive. It is perfectly proper that the hon. Gentleman raised the question, but the evidence shows no risk at all.
In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker—
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have responded to the Select Committee reports and to each of the Select Committees. The clearest response is this: we do not have a cap on student numbers, and I do not think our net migration target means that we will have to take action that damages universities. Universities were originally concerned that having a net migration target and counting student numbers, as all our international competitors do, would drive the Government to take decisions on future policy that would damage universities. The fact that we have stated clearly that not only do we not have a cap but we are not going to have a cap—that was stated not only by me but by the Prime Minister—should reassure universities.
We will take every opportunity to communicate that positive message about our excellent offer for international students, and we will work in partnership with our excellent universities to continue to increase the number of international students who come here from around the world. In that, I think I can say that I speak for every right hon. and hon. Member who participated in the debate.
Conscious of the time, I will be brief. I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. When I applied for it, my objective was a debate that was constructive in tone and would enable us to discuss issues and to present facts and figures that are not normally publicised to the extent that they should be. In its own way, the House today may have helped to change the perception abroad by making it clear that this House recognises and understands the contribution that international students make to our economy and welcomes them.
My second point, however, is that the Minister has not really resolved the contradiction at the heart of current policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, it is contradictory to say that bona fide students are welcome and there is no cap on numbers and, at the same time, to say that there is a target to reduce overall immigration to fewer than 100,000 and student visas should be included in the numbers. The Minister exercised some fairly sophisticated arguments in justification, but I put it to him that, were he to undergo a credibility interview on that point, he would find it hard to persuade Members and would-be international students in foreign countries that what he said is the case.
Lastly, I remind the Minister that the consensus that has emerged during the debate is reflected more widely. Although I did not anticipate the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills coming to the House to vote for the motion, his public utterances have made it clear where he stands on the issue. The Mayor of London—it shows how passionately I feel about it that I quote the Mayor of London—has also made public statements in favour of the arguments set out today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has made similar statements. When we get three such representatives across the political spectrum, I hope the Minister will accept that there is an enormous and growing consensus in favour of the recommended course of action.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the recommendations of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Home Affairs Select Committee, and the Committee of Public Accounts, together with the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education, for the removal of students from net migration targets; and invites the Home Office to further consider the conclusions of these Committees in developing its immigration policy.