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Post-Study Work Visa (Scotland)

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the operation of the post-study work visa in Scotland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope the House will note the views of students, graduates, academics, Universities Scotland, the National Union of Students Scotland, colleges, the Scottish Parliament and the business community, which are all calling for the UK Government’s decision to revoke the post-study work visa to be reversed. That broad coalition claims that the Government’s reckless decision hinders the student experience, is devastating for Scotland’s universities and colleges, and damages businesses’ ability to grow their operations.

The post-study work visa is an almost unique area of policy, in that it unites all Scotland’s political parties, including the Scottish Conservatives. In Scotland, we would call it a no-brainer. The post-study work visa, introduced in 2004, was one of new Labour’s few genuinely effective policies. It made a positive contribution to Scotland politically, economically and socially—an exception to prove the rule, some might say.

As the humanitarian crisis affecting refugees from Syria illustrates, Scotland has a proud record of welcoming people from all over the world. We value the contribution that our international students make to and in our communities, towns, workplaces, classes and lecture theatres. They internationalise our experiences and make us more informed and culturally aware.

One of the best things about Paisley is that the University of the West of Scotland’s main campus is located at the top of our high street. UWS is a fantastic university. It opens its doors to students who would normally not get the chance to access higher education, and it provides an excellent student experience. Although I was not a student at UWS, I have strong connections with it: my wife just enrolled there, and my dad will graduate from it in a few weeks’ time. Additionally, three of my staff graduated from UWS, two of whom served as student presidents of the university. Although they graduated at different times and with different degrees, they all agree that studying and working alongside and socialising with the international cohort was the best thing about their time at university. It opened their eyes to different cultures and a different way of working, and they became better students as a result.

Learning from others at university can be just as important as the academic education a person receives. That is the crux of the issue. The UK Government fail to understand the positive and real impact that the PSW visa has on Scotland. Although the Home Secretary believes that the PSW visa benefits only those from outside the European Union, the truth is that we all benefit from having international students studying and living in our communities. That is why the broad coalition I spoke of is united in its desire to see the post-study work visa reintroduced. We believe there is a clear, demonstrable demographic and skills need, along with wider and immeasurable social and economic benefits to restoring that route into work.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the real benefits of a post-study work visa is that the experience, qualifications and expertise that those students have gained in our universities can be used in our communities to grow our economy? Otherwise, that expertise would return to their countries and be taken away from our communities.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When the Minister sums up, can she explain why everyone else is wrong and her Government are right in believing that the post-study work visa is bad for universities, colleges and businesses?

Student leaders, such as the National Union of Students Scotland, have long supported the post-study work visa, as they have first-hand experience of the benefits that international students bring to our campuses. NUS Scotland states that international students enrich the curriculum, diversify the university experience and help improve the skill sets of our home students. I have received such feedback not only from NUS Scotland but from students who live in my constituency. Regardless of which university they study at or which course or subject they study, our home-based students all speak positively about the impact that their international colleagues have on their time at university. Although Members here probably graduated a good few moons ago, I am sure they would all say that their university experience was richer for studying alongside students with backgrounds different from their own.

I echo my hon. Friend’s words. I have worked in the Scottish further education sector for the past 12 years, and there are absolutely real cultural, social and economic benefits to having a diverse student populations in our colleges and universities. Our global competitors are very happy to welcome those valuable international students and everything they have with open arms—other places will benefit from things our communities should be benefiting from.

That was a very strong point from my hon. Friend.

NUS Scotland rightly points out that Scotland’s equivalent of the post-study work visa, the fresh talent initiative, attracted prospective international students to consider Scotland as a place to study. The Higher Education Statistics Agency suggests that the number of students from overseas markets enrolling in Scotland’s universities has declined substantially since the Home Secretary closed the post-study work opportunity. For example, recent research undertaken by the Scottish Government’s Post Study Work working group suggests that the number of new entrants to Scottish universities from India fell by 63% between 2010-11 and 2013-14.

The ending of the visa sends a clear message to that important international market that Britain is closed for business. How does the Minister respond to such damning statistics? Does she think that the fall in the number of students coming from India and other key international markets is good for universities?

During my research into the impact caused by the removal of the visa, I spoke to a number of graduates who stated that their teamworking and language skills increased as a result of working in diverse groups that contained members who came from another part of the world. They said that it created obvious challenges, although mostly for the international students who struggled to comprehend a strong west of Scotland dialect—something that Members here can appreciate. The experience of working alongside international students helped those graduates to prepare for the world of work. We need to ensure that our graduates are able to work with different cultures, and university is key in preparing them for an increasingly globalised workplace.

It is clear that students, student leaders and graduates appreciate the opportunities that the visa provided. It made Scottish universities a more attractive destination, diversified the curriculum, improved our university experience and helped to improve the skill sets of our home students. However, not only students support it. Academics have also played an important part in calling for the restoration of the visa. As well as acknowledging the benefits that international students bring to their campuses, academic leaders cannot stress enough the importance of the economic benefits that international students bring to Scotland’s higher education system.

Most non-EU students make a significant and vital contribution to Scotland’s education sector and national economy; they do not come here, receive a free education and go back to their own country as soon as they have graduated. They pay fees—in some cases, up to £24,000 a year to study at one of our top universities—and spend money while living here on accommodation, living costs and the occasional drink. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Scottish universities received £374 million from non-EU student course fees in 2012-13. While studying in Scotland, international students also contributed to the Scottish economy through off-campus expenditure, estimated at £441 million a year. In times of austerity, we surely cannot refuse to accept that income.

Hon. Members will be aware of Scotland’s fantastic reputation for higher education. Scotland now has five universities in the most recent Times Higher Education world ranking’s top 200, and three in the top 100. Those rankings assess performance in a number of areas, including employee reputation, staff-student ratios, research citations and academic reputation. Scotland well and truly punches above its weight in providing an excellent university education, and I pay tribute to the work of the Scottish Government, university staff and students in achieving that success. We should build on the reputation that Scotland’s higher education system has worked so hard to cultivate—not denigrate it, as ending the PSW visa programme is doing. We can improve our reputation and sustain our excellent academic record by restoring the visa. A failure to do so will cause us to fall behind our international competitors.

Universities are measured on their academic record and attractiveness. Can the UK Government say with any authority that the UK is an attractive place to study since the ability to live in, work in and contribute to Scotland has been removed? The decline in the number of international students choosing to study in the UK clearly shows that the UK is falling behind in international competitiveness and attractiveness. Don’t just take our word for it: the all-party parliamentary group on migration produced a report in February. Its Tory vice-chairman noted:

“Higher education is one of our country’s leading export success stories…But the government’s current approach to post-study work and student migration policy is jeopardising Britain’s position in the global race for talent.”

Higher education is not the only sector feeling the impact of the removal of the visa. Further education colleges are also calling for this important route into work to be reinstated. I am fortunate to have the Paisley campus of West College Scotland in my constituency. During my first recess as MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, I made it a priority to meet the college’s principal, Audrey Cumberford. During my meeting with Audrey, we spoke about several important issues affecting the college, including its success following a recent merger. However, we also spoke about the challenges that the college is facing and the major test confronting the college sector as a result of the Home Secretary’s decision to revoke the visa.

Like others in the FE sector, Audrey Cumberford claims that the post-study work visa was an important factor in attracting the best international student talent to Scotland. It secured essential income for colleges and allowed college and university graduates to continue to contribute to Scotland at the end of their studies. It could be argued that colleges have actually been hit harder following the demise of the visa as the number of international students studying in Scotland’s colleges fell from 2,039 in 2010-11 to 561 in 2013-14—a shocking and inexcusable fall of 72%. What is the Minister’s response to that shocking decline? What support can the Government provide to current students who are losing out from not being able to study alongside students from other countries?

Audrey Cumberford serves not only as the principal of West College Scotland, but as the chairwoman of the Renfrewshire chamber of commerce, playing an important role in supporting local businesses. She speaks to businesses from around the world on a regular basis, hearing about the opportunities and challenges that exist when setting up and operating a business in the UK. Again, business leaders are uniting with students, universities, academics, the NUS and colleges in calling for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. The Post Study Work working group is quite damning in its claim that the UK Government’s decision to revoke international students’ ability to work after graduating from university is acting as a barrier to economic growth in Scotland. In fact, the results of a consultative survey found that 90% of businesses in Scotland were in favour of the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. Is there another policy programme that nine out of 10 businesses oppose and that businesses claim is having a detrimental impact on their operations? Surely the Conservatives, the self-proclaimed party of business, would want to do something to help them.

Businesses in Scotland claim that they are losing out on recruiting highly skilled workers now that the option of employing a highly skilled and qualified overseas graduate is no longer available. From a job market point of view, there is no reason whatever not to allow such students to take up the job opportunities waiting for them. They would pay tax and contribute to our communities and we should allow them to pay the country back for the education that they have received. The Government talk about reducing wasteful spend, but training these students, pouring thousands of pounds into educating them and then allowing another country to reap the benefits is surely the ultimate waste of money.

Businesses are also refuting the UK Government’s claim that international students will take jobs away from UK-based students. The fact of the matter is that a skill shortage exists in Scotland and the Post Study Work working group acknowledged the role that international student recruitment could have on filling that gap. Significant skill gaps exist in areas such as financial services, food technology, engineering and IT, and we should reduce the constraints on such businesses to allow them to recruit skilled international workers and make use of them to train up domestic workers. Would one approach to help meet the skills gap not be the restoration of the post-study work visa?

In conclusion, I hope that in my first Westminster Hall debate I have been able to articulate the views of the broad coalition that wants the post-study work visa to be reintroduced. The matter has been brought to the attention of the Scottish Affairs Committee time and again as it consults with Scots from a variety of sectors. It bears repeating that it is rare to find a policy area that unites all major Scottish political parties in addition to business, civic Scotland and the higher and further education sectors. The UK Government are finding themselves increasingly isolated on the matter and the decision consistently to reject calls for the PSW visa to be reintroduced does nothing for their reputation as being deaf to and out of touch with the Scottish public when it comes to immigration matters. We are in a post-referendum period and the ball is well and truly in the UK Government’s court. There is civic consensus and unanimity across all political parties in Scotland that post-study work visas should be reintroduced.

Scotland’s immigration needs are different from those in the rest of the UK, and we welcome the contribution that new Scots make to our economy and society. A post-study work visa is an important lever for attracting the best international student talent. The Smith Commission recommendations clearly outlined that Scotland should have more flexibility within the current UK-wide framework for immigration. The Government have consistently indicated a willingness to listen to the arguments and make amendments to the Scotland Bill, but they have consistently failed to follow their words with action. I offer the Government yet another opportunity to show that they can listen. There is room in the Smith agreement to devolve the administration of student visas, so I ask the minister to give that serious consideration.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I apologise for my slightly late arrival. Something is going on outside, and it seems that the roads are a bit busy for some visitor or other. Anyway, I got here and I was delighted to hear the vast majority of the speech made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), whom I congratulate on securing a debate on the operation of post-study work visas in Scotland.

The Government recognise that there should be opportunities for the brightest and best graduates from UK universities to remain in the UK to work, and we have an excellent post-study work offer for graduates seeking to undertake skilled work in Scotland after their studies. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) are right to say that overseas students enrich the universities at which they study. I am lucky enough to be a graduate of Imperial College London. When I studied there, over 20 years ago, more than a third of students were from overseas, and I know that my university experience was enriched as a result. I will therefore set out the opportunities available to overseas students who graduate from UK universities and make it clear that the UK is not closed for business.

The number of students who can stay in the UK after completing their studies is not limited, but they need to meet certain conditions. Those with an offer of a graduate-level job, paying an appropriate salary, may take up sponsored employment through tier 2, the skilled worker route, which is one of the ways that they can apply to stay. Over 25,000 UK employers are licensed by the Home Office to sponsor non-EEA nationals to work in the UK under tier 2. If graduates apply from within the UK, the resident labour market test is waived and they are not subject to the annual limit on tier 2 numbers. In 2013, more than 4,000 visas were issued to tier 4 students to switch into tier 2 in the UK; last year, that number increased to more than 5,500.

We have introduced a visa category for graduate entrepreneurs, the first of its kind in the world. Those who have been identified by a higher education institution or UK Trade & Investment can stay on for up to two years to develop their business in the UK before switching into tier 2 or the main tier 1 entrepreneur route. Just over 560 graduate entrepreneur visas were granted in 2014, up from 206 the year before.

We have also made provisions to switch into tier 5 those graduates wishing to undertake a period of professional training or a corporate internship related to their qualifications before pursuing a career overseas. In addition, PhD students can stay in the UK for an extra year under the tier 4 doctorate extension scheme to look for work or start their own business. All those post-study work provisions are available to non-EEA graduates of UK universities, including those in Scotland.

It is worth putting the statistics on the record. In the year ending March 2015, 137,000 non-EU students entered the UK and only 41,000 left. That shows that many people are taking advantage of the opportunities to stay in the UK and work that the legal migration route offers, but it also indicates that there are many overstayers—people who are here beyond their visa. It is therefore important that the Government, who are listening to people’s migration concerns, do not allow or accept abuses.

I also want to address the question of whether Scottish universities are at a competitive disadvantage. Let me be clear: I would never talk down Scottish higher education establishments. Scottish universities are absolutely fantastic. I have relatives who have studied at Glasgow and other institutions and I know about the fantastic qualifications, training and learning that they received. Since 2010, university-sponsored applications have increased by 7%, with a 4% increase to 14,627 last year. The figures indicate that Scotland is not closed for business and that overseas students do want to study in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned a decline in further education college numbers. We are reforming the student visa system to tackle abuse. There has been a fall in the number of international students applying to study in further education, the area where immigration abuse had been most prevalent. However, I repeat: university-sponsored applications to Scottish universities are increasing—up 7% since 2010 and up 4% last year alone.

The current set of provisions replaced the tier 1 post-study work category, which was closed in April 2012. The previous category permitted students graduating from a UK university to stay in the UK for up to two years after they finished their course, with unrestricted access to the labour market. The number of applications was significant, climbing from 20,015 grants of extension of stay in 2008 to 43,719 in 2011, when the route accounted for 45% of all grants of extension of stay for the purpose of work. Analysis of the route shows that the availability of the post-study work category gave rise to a cohort of migrants with a significant possibility of engagement on unskilled work. An operational assessment of the employment status of tier 1 migrants undertaken in October 2010 found that three in five users of the tier 1 post-study work category were in unskilled work, not graduate-level work. That does not suggest that the UK is not open for business. Our great university education should mean that we encourage people who want to stay to do graduate work, not to carry out unskilled labour.

In addition, UK Visas and Immigration intelligence assessments made in 2009 found that applications to switch into the tier 1 post-study work category were associated with high levels of abuse, including the submission of suspected bogus educational qualifications. A 2014 analysis of the tax status of migrants who had switched from the tier 1 post-study work category to the tier 1 entrepreneur category found that the majority had no declared economic activity or were working in breach of their conditions of stay. At the same time, we transformed the immigration routes for migrant workers and introduced a cap of 20,700 for non-EEA migrant workers, and there has been an increase in sponsored visa applications for highly skilled workers.

We have also tackled abuse of the student route. We have struck off nearly 900 bogus colleges since 2010. At the same time there has been a 17% rise in the number of sponsored student visa applications for universities, and a 33% rise for Russell Group universities.

It is a great shame that the Government have not found a way to deal with bogus colleges without the great disadvantage that is being inflicted on colleges and universities. I urge the Minister to be cognisant of the differences between universities and colleges when she gives her explanations. That would be very welcome.

I do understand the point that the hon. Lady makes about the difference between FE and higher education colleges. I am privileged to have a higher education college in my constituency now, as the FE college has become part of the University of Derby and is therefore now a higher education establishment. I am aware of different types of students and courses.

I want to touch on the matter of devolution. The Smith commission commits the Scottish and UK Governments to working together to explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time. The current provisions available to graduates of Scottish universities are precisely the type referred to in the report of the Smith commission.

On the question of net migration overall, as the Home Secretary has set out, high levels of immigration can put pressure on schools, hospitals, accommodation, transport and social services and drive down wages for people on low incomes. We now have a more selective approach to immigration, which is designed to operate in a fair and practical way, giving students, graduates, workers and employers the confidence they need in our system.

I recognise that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and his hon. Friends value the post-study work provisions in Scotland and across the UK. I confirm my commitment to our continuing to provide an excellent offer to people who graduate from UK universities.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.