[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered immigration rules for international students.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Tomorrow is International Students’ Day, so I thank hon. Members for turning out to mark the occasion. I also thank the numerous organisations that have got in touch to provide helpful thoughts and briefings—enough to fill the debate, although I promise I will not do that.
The debate offers us the chance to celebrate the contribution of international students to our education sector, our economy and our whole society. But not just that—it is also the perfect time to reflect on where the UK is in the increasing global competition to attract international students, what our ambitions should be and whether the Government are pursuing the right immigration policies to achieve those. I suspect that hon. Members will need little persuading that we should celebrate international students, so I will only briefly put on record the economic, social and cultural benefits that they bring.
In economic terms, international students’ contribution to UK GDP almost certainly exceeds £10 billion per year and supports around 170,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Many international students go on to undertake post-doctoral research in the UK, helping to drive world-leading research. All analysis of the economic effect of taking on international students shows that they have a significant net benefit.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Leicester has two great universities—Leicester University and De Montfort University—that have a number of international students. Does he agree that not only is it important that we have fair and effective rules so people can answer criticisms that are made of them, but the Government’s rhetoric is extremely important? We should encourage more international students to come and study here in the United Kingdom. If they do not, they will just go elsewhere. There is a big market out there, and unless we have them here, we will lose the revenue and advantages that they bring.
I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, I will mention later the messages that the Government have been sending out and the negative headlines that they have been attracting in key markets for international students. The Government must seriously rethink those messages.
When considering the economic benefits of international students, we must also think about the personal and professional links that 84% of those students maintain after they leave the United Kingdom. They are a tremendous source of soft power for this country and allow trade links and political alliances to be built. We should also remember that those benefits are triggered not only by our universities; hundreds of thousands of other students are taught English as a second language in the UK each year at around 450 institutions accredited by the British Council.
The benefits of attracting the brightest international students go way beyond the economy. Such students enrich and diversify the research and learning environment by exposing our own students and staff to different approaches, contributing to their international experience and skills, and creating a more culturally diverse environment.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is he aware that Bangor University in my constituency has widespread international links, including a site in China, as well as students from all over the world, all of whom have been made to feel very uncomfortable by the current atmosphere? This is not just a matter of the £400 million that international students contribute to the Welsh economy; it counts at the individual level as well.
Like some of my colleagues, I have two universities in my constituency: the University of Warwick and Coventry University. Students from abroad certainly make a major contribution—about £9 billion per year—to the British economy. That is a hefty sum. To put that another way, 380,000-odd students come to this country per annum. The Government are not really friendly towards students. As some colleagues will recall, the Government abolished the education maintenance allowance, and they do not show much enthusiasm even for apprenticeships and further education.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. International students’ contribution to GDP is actually now £10 billion—even higher than the figure he quotes.
I will finish my praise for international students by turning to the St Andrews University students’ association, which put out a statement this morning that I think sums things up nicely:
“Universities... owe much of their value and their success to their diversity. Without a student or staffing body comprised of people of all races, religions, class or political allegiance, we cannot and will not achieve the level of quality—in research and personal character—to which the UK is accustomed. By mixing, debating, and learning from those with varied views and cultural backgrounds, we become better, more rounded, more tolerant and accepting individuals.”
Those views are broadly shared by around three quarters of our own students, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute survey.
Turning to where we are now, the UK has for some time been a world leader in attracting international students, but that reputation is in jeopardy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate, and I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said about the Government’s rhetoric on international students. There are a lot of students in Hampstead and Kilburn, and they are diverse; they make my constituency what it is. The hon. Gentleman talked about international students’ net contribution, which I believe is £14 billion a year. Does he agree that in post-Brexit Britain, we should recognise the value of those students and remove them from the net migration target to make them feel more welcome in our country?
I agree wholeheartedly. I will turn later to the contradiction that on the one hand, the Treasury appears to be all for increasing our education exports, but on the other, the Home Office includes students in its net migration target and therefore sees them as a ready target for trying to clamp down on migrant numbers.
In 2014-15, of the around 2.27 million students at UK higher education institutions, more than 125,000 were from other EU countries and more than 300,000 were from non-EU countries. In the most recent year that we have figures for, overall international student numbers just about held up, but the number of new entrants fell by 2.8%. Figures from June this year show that the number of study-related visas granted by the UK fell by 5% from the previous year. The British Council has stated that the UK is beginning to lose market share to competitors.
There are serious concerns about the UK’s performance in attracting students from key markets. The number of Indian students enrolling in their first year at UK universities fell by 10% in 2015 compared with the year before. The number of Indian students studying here has fallen by around 50% in the four years since the UK Government started to turn the screw while our rivals were all improving their offer. It is no coincidence that there is now a record number of Indian students in the US, which has, for example, opened up post-study work schemes.
Where do we want to go from here? If any other industry brought such a wealth of benefits to the country, the Government would be mad not to pull out all the stops to go for growth. Education is one of the UK’s most successful exports. In what other export market would we say that we were not going to bother so much with expansion and we were quite happy to see our rivals catch us up and overtake us?
The Government’s official ambition is for education exports as a whole to be worth £30 billion by 2020. In last year’s autumn statement, the Chancellor projected that the number of non-EU students in England alone would rise by just over 7% in the next two years and by 3.2% in the two years after that, but if the 0.6% increase in student enrolments last year is anything to go by, the Government’s goal, modest though it is, has no chance of being met.
The Government must be much more ambitious. While our share of international students is beginning to falter, international student numbers are growing much more significantly and strongly in countries such as the US, Australia and Canada—in fact, those countries are in a completely different league from us. International student numbers are expected to grow significantly around the world in the years ahead, so the opportunities are there if we want to take them, but countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, China, Japan and Taiwan often talk about doubling their number of international students by 2020 or 2025.
Our universities are alarmed about the implications of Brexit, so the Government must step up to the plate to reassure rather than seek to complete what essentially would be a triple whammy, with another crackdown and a persistent failure to listen to rational arguments about a post-study work visa. One of the key underlying problems is, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said, the inclusion of students in the net migration target. At best it seems inconsistent for, on the one hand, the Treasury to be targeting an increase in education exports and, on the other, the Home Office to be quite clearly seeing student numbers as a target for reductions.
To make matters worse, the Home Office appears to be motivated by international passenger survey statistics and a belief that about 90,000 students are not leaving when their courses end. That is not a good thing, because serious questions about the accuracy of those figures are now being asked not just by me, but by the UK Statistics Authority, the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, and the Institute for Public Policy Research, just by way of example. The main reason for the concerns is that the figures suggested by the Government are completely out of kilter with many other sources of information, from Home Office longitudinal studies to the destination of leavers survey and the annual population survey. We are talking about not just a few hundred students here and there, but many tens of thousands.
As the Minister will know, just a few weeks ago an article appeared in The Times that suggested that the Home Office has in its hands an independent analysis that shows that just 1% of international students break the terms of their visas by refusing to leave after their courses end. Sadly, as I understand it, the Home Office has refused to share that study with other Departments, never mind with MPs or the public. Perhaps the Minister will explain why.
That is a good point that we should bear in mind. The export of education takes the form of not just attracting international students, but physically building campuses and other institutions abroad.
I ask the Minister to explain what is happening with the study that we are not allowed to see, because that study almost certainly takes into account new exit checks, which have been in place for about 12 months. Using exit checks and cross-referencing other data sources gives us a tremendous new opportunity to get a proper handle on student migration patterns. It simply is not common sense for the Government to press ahead with new goals for reducing student numbers until such time as the assumptions on which the proposals are based are thoroughly tested.
I know from speaking with the Office for National Statistics just this morning that it is taking on a body of work to look at this issue and that it will today put some information on its website to explain the nature of that work. Will the Government therefore undertake to share the exit check data with the Office for National Statistics, which is important for its work, and will the Minister wait until that work is complete, rather than pressing ahead with any rash policy decisions?
I turn finally to the policies we need, if hon. Members agree with me that we should be going for growth. What policies would allow us to do that? The obvious first answer is that we need to up our game on post-study work offers. Post-study work is something that our competitor countries are using as a key means to attract talented international students, and they are doing it much better than us. Canada has three-year visas with no salary threshold and New Zealand has one-year visas with no salary threshold. Australia conducted a big review on the subject back in 2010, when it was beginning to struggle to attract international students, and, lo and behold, it proposed a two-year post-study visa with no salary requirement, just like we used to have here, and now it is much more competitive than we are.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I will turn later to how some of the thresholds set are unrealistic for specific sectors, and indeed specific parts of the United Kingdom.
Post-study work is attractive, and it is important in attracting international students, because for them it is an opportunity to gain priceless experience of the business environment and culture in the UK. It allows them to utilise knowledge gained from their studies in an English-speaking setting, build networks and, importantly, offset some of the costs of studying abroad. The range of voices speaking out in favour of a post-study work scheme is huge. It includes Universities Scotland; Universities UK; the Russell Group; the Scottish Government; Scottish Tories, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens; the Scottish Government’s post-study work working group; the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, twice; various all-party parliamentary groups; the Select Committee on Home Affairs; the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee; the Scottish TUC; business groups; immigration lawyers; and the Cole commission on UK exports, which was asked to make a report. They are not all wrong. Even a study funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills made it clear that our failure in post-study work offers puts the UK’s universities at a competitive disadvantage in attempting to recruit the best of the international student pool.
If the Government will not listen on a UK-wide basis, I repeat the call that they should allow Scotland to press ahead, as well as any other nation or region of the UK that wishes to do so. The arguments offered by the Government in response recently to the Scottish Affairs Committee did not stack up. It is not true that allowing Scotland to introduce its own post-study work scheme would harm the integrity of the UK’s immigration system. We all know that other countries apply different immigration rules in different constituent parts—indeed, so has the UK. It did with the fresh talent scheme and the tech nation visa, and the plain old tier 2 permit ties visa holders, at least by implication to particular parts of the UK, so it can be done.
The Government complained that, under the fresh talent working in Scotland scheme, some people used study in Scotland as a means to move to England. The first point is, so what? Even if the numbers the Government quote are accurate—the Minister knows that the study probably was not comprehensive enough for that—we are talking about tiny numbers. We are also talking about people who were doing nothing illegal or in breach of their visa, because it was not a stipulation of the visa that the person had to live and work in Scotland.
If the Minister is so worried about a couple of thousand additional graduates entering the labour force outside Scotland, he should stipulate that condition in the visa. It really is that simple. Otherwise, the message from the Government to Scotland is that the demographic challenges and skills shortages it faces do not matter and that the priority is keeping a handful of extra migrants out of other parts of the UK.
To rub salt in the wounds, I cannot say strongly enough how many bridges were burned when the Government announced that their pilot of a half-baked alternative to the post-study work scheme would be piloted only in a tiny number of English universities. Even if rolled out, that pilot scheme is not remotely competitive with what other countries are offering. It offers just four months at the end of study and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) said, the starting salary thresholds are inappropriate for certain sectors and regions. Median salaries for graduates of Scottish universities are £19,000 or lower in biological sciences; agriculture and related subjects; law; languages; and creative arts and design, which is below the threshold for a tier 2 visa.
It is not just the absence of a post-study work visa that is problematic. There are serious concerns about the credibility interviews conducted by UK Visas that essentially reassess decisions made by the universities. Subjective criteria now operate alongside the Government’s decision to reduce the maximum visa refusal rates of an institution to 10%. That means that institutions are scaling back recruitment work in places from which there are higher refusal rates.
We are also alarmed at hints that a two-tier system is on its way, with visas for some universities incorporating more favourable terms and conditions than for others. All universities are quality assured—that is required by a tier 4 licence. I am therefore proud to speak up for all Scottish universities—indeed, all universities throughout the UK—and question the message that sends out.
I could speak for hours on the complexity of the application process and various other problems, but I will draw my remarks to a conclusion and leave it to other Members or for another debate to explore those issues. The key message is that international students are brilliant and we could do so much more to attract them here for the benefit of all. Government policy is misguided in the extreme and it is time for an urgent rethink. It is time to up our game and maximise our efforts to attract international students, who bring real benefits to this country.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be worth noting that there is a large degree of interest in the debate. While I do not intend to apply a strict time limit, none the less, will everyone be courteous to their neighbours and keep their remarks perhaps to five, seven or eight minutes, or something of that order? I think we will then fit most people in.
Thank you, Mr Gray. May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)? I think I have pronounced that correctly. [Interruption.] It is always a challenge. Do not worry, I am used to “Luger-bruger”. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this excellent debate on this important subject. It is nice to see the Minister in his place; I know he will listen carefully to what we all have to say. May I apologise to the Chamber for not being able to stay for the wind-ups? I will, however, read the concluding remarks—particularly from the Minister—with great interest.
I am here to speak up as the Member of Parliament for Loughborough, which has a hugely successful and internationally focused university. I also recognise the other successful universities in Leicestershire, which have already been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz): Leicester University and De Montfort University. It is fair to say that Leicester and Leicestershire Members are extremely proud of our three highly successful universities.
In my former role as Secretary of State for Education, and also as the Minister for Women and Equalities, I spent much of my time encouraging our young people to be outward looking and globally minded. That was at the heart of what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said about the importance of our internationally facing universities and higher education institutions to all of this country.
Given the interest in the debate, I will keep my remarks to two main points: first, numbers, and whether it is right to include students in the reduction in migrants to tens of thousands per year, and, secondly, the benefits of universities. I think the debate also speaks to a wider issue that we are grappling with as a Parliament at the moment, which is the kind of country we want to be after the referendum on 23 June. I firmly feel, and I suspect—or hope—that many Members agree, that we do not want to turn our backs on the world. If we were somehow to harm or to disable our higher education institutions, we would be at grave risk of doing just that.
People of intelligence and good will voted both for and against Brexit. Does the right hon. Lady agree that many people are now frightened by some of the rhetoric they have heard around Brexit, and that it is the responsibility of the House to allay those fears?
I agree with the hon. Lady. There has been some very unfortunate rhetoric, and I am sad to say that we have even had incidents—I know of at least one—on the campus of Loughborough University, in my constituency, whereby those who have come from abroad to work or study have been made to feel unwelcome. I do not think that is the kind of country any of us want to represent.
The right hon. Lady was a distinguished Education Secretary, and whenever she spoke on these issues it was about getting more students to study in our country. Now that she is no longer the Education Secretary, can I tempt her to confirm the rumour we heard at the time she was: her Department was in favour of more students coming here, the Foreign Office was in favour of more students coming, the Business Department was in favour of more students coming—it was only the Home Office that spoiled the party. Will she confirm whether that was the case?
The right hon. Gentleman is an old hand in the House. He knows he is tempting me down paths that are always dangerous for former Ministers to follow. I will say that this former Secretary of State for Education was very much in favour of making sure that our higher education institutions were open to international students, because we are at our best when we are outward looking. It is fair to say that there were certainly other Ministers who very much shared that view.
I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government are relying on reliable numbers when drafting their immigration policy. The annual population survey suggests that only around 30,000 to 40,000 non-EU migrants who previously came as students are still in the UK after five years. The rules introduced by the Home Office over the past six years have done the right thing in cracking down on abuses by those who came here for the wrong reason—not to study but to work without the requisite permission. However, we have to be careful that the rules do not adversely affect genuine students and institutions, and do not undermine the UK’s reputation as a desirable destination for international students.
I will also talk about public opinion, because it is important in the current immigration debate. We know that many of our constituents want immigration to be controlled. I think that means that we should know who is coming in, how long they are coming in for, why they are coming in and at what point, if any, they are going to be leaving, or whether we are going to get the benefit of their skills once they have finished their studies.
Recent polling from Universities UK and ComRes revealed that only 24% of British adults think of international students as immigrants. Of those who expressed a view in the poll, 75% said they would like to see the same number or more international students in the UK, which increased to 87% once information on the economic benefits of international students was provided. The poll also revealed that the over- whelming majority of the British public—91%—think that international students should be able to stay and work in the UK for a period of time after they have completed their studies.
In the interests of time, I will move on to my second point about the benefits that universities bring to our local communities, which the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East set out very well. Of course, as I am constantly reminded by Loughborough, we should not forget that our universities are not just about teaching, although that is important, but about research and driving economic growth in our local areas. All three Leicestershire universities that I have mentioned are key parts of our local enterprise partnerships and, I suspect, should be key parts of the Government’s industrial strategy when that is announced.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East talked about the contribution that universities make to our local areas. The international education sector is one of the UK’s biggest services exports, and I hope that the Department for Exiting the European Union listens very closely to what universities and higher education have to say on the deal that we will eventually negotiate with the European Union. UK education exports are estimated to be worth approximately £17.5 billion to the UK economy. International students, including EU students, support 170,000 full-time equivalent jobs across the UK and contribute £9 billion.
Those are big numbers but, if we boil it down, I know as a local Member of Parliament that my constituents are employed as researchers and academics, but also in less skilled jobs—the people who make the campus the place it is, who look after the students and who run businesses and other institutions, such as retailers, that rely on the student contribution to their local economy.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the contribution that EU students make is absolutely crucial and, as we approach Brexit, a particular signal of reassurance has to be given? There is already evidence that researchers and students are apprehensive about their future in the UK, post-Brexit.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) who asked the Prime Minister a very good question earlier. I have said publicly and will say again that the Government should be giving confirmation to EU citizens who are currently here that they can stay and should have no fear of being asked to leave. My constituents have emailed me—some of whom are EU citizens who have come here to work; some of whom are married to or have other family members who are EU citizens—and I think it is wrong that we are leaving them with this uncertainty.
I very much hope that student numbers will be removed from the drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, for the reason I have given about public opinion, as well as because it is the right thing to do for our economy. In the next couple of years, the Home Office has the opportunity to develop a new, post-Brexit immigration policy. I know that will be a challenge, but there is also an opportunity to remove student numbers from that drive to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, as we develop a sensible immigration policy that works for this country, for businesses, for communities and for our higher education institutions. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East on bringing the debate to the Chamber.
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who made a powerful case with which I know many Members of her party, and indeed many Members across the House, agree. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing the debate and on the powerful case he made, too.
I rise to speak as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international students—a job that I share with Lord Bilimoria, who joined the Prime Minister last week on a mission to India. I think a lot of people on that mission learned something about the relationship between trade agreements and issues relating to students, after the Indian Government made it clear that our future relationship depended on our taking a different view on international students.
Our all-party parliamentary group draws support from both Government and Opposition Members in significant numbers. It was set up during this Parliament because of growing concern about the way in which we are at risk of undermining one of our most successful export industries: education. Clearly, we should not reduce the debate about international students to simple numbers—although some powerful numbers have been given.
International students enrich the learning environment of our campuses. In an ever smaller world in which we need to understand one another better, it is a huge advantage for British students to be learning in classrooms and laboratories alongside others from all over the world. International students add enormously to the research capacity of our universities, with benefits to local economies, as I know from talking to businesses in Sheffield that appreciate their contribution.
We can add to that the enormous benefits we get from the lasting relationships that are established through the experience of studying here. I was talking earlier this year to the high commissioner of one of our major trading partners and important allies, and he said to me, “Did you know that more than half our Cabinet went to university in the UK?” As the Higher Education Policy Institute points out, 55 world leaders from 51 countries studied in this country. That sort of soft power is the envy of countries around the world, with political influence and commercial contracts based on an affection that people feel for this country because they studied here. Of course, we also have to acknowledge the economic benefits, which the right hon. Member for Loughborough outlined.
Who would imagine that a Government would do anything other than celebrate that great British success? It has not been so. Throughout the last Parliament, to growing concern, the Government undermined our ability to recruit international students. I know that Ministers sometimes contest the claim about recruitment numbers—I anticipate that the Minister may do so today—by saying that they have broadly held level. With the exception of one blip in one year, that is true, but it is a growing market. Holding level is not good enough. It means we are reducing market share, to the benefit of our competitors.
In the last year for which figures are available, the number of international students was up 7% in the States and up 8% in Australia, and Canada plans to double its numbers. That is all at our expense, and it is because of the measures under the previous Parliament that made the UK a less attractive destination. Those measures were put in place by the Government to hit their net migration targets, and that is the problem; international students were viewed as part of the migration debate. That is not the way the public see them, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, and it is not the way that we in this place see them either. An unprecedented five Select Committees of the Commons and the Lords have called for change by taking students out of net migration targets and seeing them as valuable, not something to be restricted.
Instead, the Government are stepping up their action against international students. In her speech to the Conservative party conference last month, the Home Secretary put international students at the centre of her plans to cut migration. She introduced a new tool with which she plans to do that: linking visa approval to the quality of courses. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Government are introducing a teaching excellence framework for our universities, grading universities gold, silver or bronze. I hope that in his closing remarks, the Minister will confirm whether it is the Home Office’s intention to use that system of measuring quality to determine the new visa regime it has in mind. If not, will he confirm that the Home Office plans to introduce its own measurement of the quality of our universities? He will not be surprised to know that if he uses TEF, some surprising universities will lose out. University College London and the London School of Economics—both leading universities—would not necessarily get the gold measure.
These are challenging times for our country. Charting our place in the post-Brexit world presents real challenges. We need to win friends, not alienate them. Last week’s prime ministerial mission to India demonstrated that many of our friends will put access to universities at the heart of the discussion on our future relationship. Above all, we need to build on our successful sectors, to mitigate the economic damage of Brexit. In terms of export earnings, universities are a huge success, but that is put at risk by Brexit. It is not only the 185,000 EU students in the country but the 30% of non-EU students who said before the referendum on 23 June that they would find the UK a less attractive country if we voted to leave the European Union.
As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said, a sensible Government would look at those facts and say, “How can we strengthen our position in the world? How can we do better against our competitors? How can we up our game?” Instead, the Home Secretary is moving in the other direction. That is madness. There is no other sector in our economy to which the Government would be saying, “We want you to do less well.” I hope that the Minister will reflect on all the contributions today and all the concern outside this place and say that the Government are willing to think again, to up our game, to learn from our competitors and to celebrate winning more international students to this country as a policy objective.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on starting this important debate. I begin with a declaration of interest: I have benefited from international students very directly in the past few months. A Mexican postgraduate engineer called Alfredo helped me to analyse the complex business cases that the Department for Transport uses, and he was extraordinarily helpful. I also had a Swiss postgrad on an LSE scheme help me to expose some of the limitations of the northern powerhouse project and provide the office with useful chocolate, including proper Toblerone.
Debates such as this follow a customary pattern. The proposer adopts a cloak of virtue and expects the Government to do something, and the Government then point out all the practicalities, financial limitations and reasons why they cannot do what the proposer suggests. The proposer is normally the hero, and the Government are normally the villain—the Minister has to, in effect, act that part. However, there is a real opportunity for him to be the hero.
There is a Conservative Government with a progressive policy to attract international students. They lambast in press publicity their socialist predecessor for not doing enough, have a 10-year plan for international students and are aggressively building the skills base by attracting the brightest international talent. That Government are in Australia. There is equally—this is not a good example, because I might be prejudiced—a Liberal Government in Canada that are doing something rather similar.
Being sensible about it, I think we all agree that universities gain from a clear international dimension, with bright people from other countries contributing enormously to our academic culture and to important research areas where we do not have the research expertise ourselves. The world gains enormously from having an involvement with British universities, at no cost to us. It is a good thing, and nobody around the table would say anything different.
There appear to be only two problems, and one of them is within the Minister’s grasp to solve. Student numbers are cited as a problem, in terms of how they feature in net migration and add to the anxiety about immigration. I think most sensible people see that as purely a presentational or cosmetic problem. It is quite clear, from the polling evidence produced by the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), that the public do not see it that way at all when it is properly explained to them. The second worry, which is the more pertinent one as far as the Minister is concerned, is that study is actually used as a device for securing permanent access to the country.
The first problem is soluble. It is a non-problem. I understand concerns about how the Office for National Statistics does stats and so on, but frankly, when previous Governments were troubled by how accurate a reflection of unemployment the employment statistics were, they changed them. Within recent memory, the Government changed the assessment on child poverty because it and the way in which it was presented were wrong. The Government can change this.
The second problem, of study being used as a device to enter the country or stay permanently in the country, may not be a real problem—not if there is adequate quality control on HE. It looks from forthcoming legislation as if there may be less of that, but there was a clear clampdown on bogus colleges. I do not think we need to worry excessively about that. The issue may not be a problem because we have no good numbers on it. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East cited the IPPR report that refers to a secret report in the Home Office that says it is not a problem. Maybe the Minister will talk a little—of course he cannot—about this secret report. He is going to.
Okay. I am grateful to hear that. The issue may not be a problem because when we think about it objectively, somebody who masters English, having not started out with English as their native tongue, and who has qualified in a good British university, may be precisely the sort of person the country needs.
None the less, I accept that, generally speaking, the Government, the public, the world distinguish between admission for study and admission for work, and they are two different things. The problem is that in this country we allow anxieties about the latter to completely screw up the former, if I can use that as parliamentary language, Mr Gray; I probably cannot.
Hence the conflict that rides through Government between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, who clearly has a different opinion. Hence we see the significance that higher education has for Brexit not only from the money point of view but because courses will fall over and research will simply not be done.
I am not going to volunteer an elegant solution to managing the position between admission for work and admission for study. It is a choice between whatever the Government want to do—summary rejection or complete inertia. However, I will make a simple point that most people would want to make. The Government can make life easy for themselves—they really can—by following business advice, public instinct and academic argument and publicly differentiate the student and the migrant.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate. I apologise if I have to leave before the end—I will be a Teller at the end of the debate in the main Chamber—but hopefully that will not be necessary. I do not want to speak for long; I just want to make a few short remarks urging the Government to listen to our universities and to ensure that international students continue to feel welcome in the UK. Following the vote to leave the EU and the Government’s rhetoric on visa restrictions, there is a real and justifiable worry about the future of international students in the UK.
As a Manchester MP, I am proud that we have a university where one in five students is from overseas, many of whom live in my constituency. Ahead of this debate, the University of Manchester was keen to impress on me the great contribution that international students make to the wealth and cultural life of our city. The figures are varied, but I think we can all agree that international students generate more than £9 billion to the UK economy and at least 140,000 jobs. An international student who studies in Britain is an investment in the future of UK research and innovation. According to the British Council, 45% of early career researchers are from overseas. These are some of the people who become our international academic staff, who help to maintain our world-beating reputation for higher education.
At the same time, demand from international students on our public services is relatively limited. Non-EU students have no access to benefits and students generally are far younger and healthier than the population as a whole.
Going back to the statistics that my hon. Friend mentioned, the proportion of overseas students at post-doctoral level in disciplines such as science and engineering exceeds 70%, so if the income and the expertise they bring were to go, there would be a real risk that those departments, or parts of them, would close.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point; that is a real risk. When we talk about immigration numbers, the public recognise the value of international students. They do not consider international students as immigrants. It is not often that I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), but she was absolutely right to quote the Universities UK study. Clearly, the British public think that international students should be able to stay and work for a period after studying, so the Home Secretary’s comments about new restrictions on overseas students are a real worry, particularly at a time when there is already uncertainty as a result of the referendum.
Leaving the EU will pose a real threat to our universities and students. Although I welcome the short-term funding guarantees for EU students and staff, there needs to be a longer-term solution, and the Government have to prioritise the free arrangements for the academic community in the upcoming negotiations because the indecision is already causing problems. I was talking to an academic, an EU national, who works at the University of Manchester. He said to me, “I love living in Manchester. I love my job. I don’t want to move abroad, but I don’t know what the future holds.” He had been offered a job at a German university. He said, “For the first time in my life I am considering leaving the job I love in Manchester because I can be more certain of my future in Germany.” That is a real concern for the academic community and for us in the UK, because we cannot afford to lose talent.
Prioritising the post-Brexit study arrangements for EU students and academics has to be a vital first step. However, at a time when the Government need to reassure the higher education sector that the UK will remain outward-looking, they appear to be pulling up the drawbridge on international students. The focus on bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands may or may not be workable. I suspect it is unworkable, and it is certainly damaging our universities while students are included in that number.
The IPPR has argued that the Government are treating students as an easy target in their mission to bring net migration down. It has called the Government’s approach “deeply problematic”. We need only look at some of our international competitors to see what they are doing in contrast. I will give two examples. In April, Australia announced a new national strategy for expanding its international education sector and has streamlined its visa processes. Canada has recently expanded opportunities for international students to access post-study work and permanent residency. It is time the Government learnt the lessons from our competitors and welcomed international students instead of putting extra visa restrictions on them.
I want to close with three or four asks for what the Government should do immediately to reassure our higher education sector.
I will be very quick; in fact, I will read the bullet points. First, the Government need to remove international students from the net migration target. Secondly, the Government need to reintroduce the post-study work visa for STEM and nursing graduates. Thirdly, they need to rethink proposals to introduce visa restrictions. Finally, the Government really need to publicly acknowledge that the ability of students and university staff from the EU to study and work freely in this country is integral to the world-beating university education system that we have.
International students make a huge contribution to our academic life and our society. The Government need to welcome them, not discourage them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate. This week is a celebration of the richness and diversity that international students from Europe or further afield bring to our communities. Unfortunately, the current mood music when it comes to international students is wrong. More and more, the UK is being seen as unwelcoming or even hostile to those students. The reputational damage done by Brexit cannot be overestimated. If we add to that our restrictive visa regime, countries such as the US, Canada and Australia become far more attractive. It should not be a question of us allowing talented students to come here; the Government need to actively campaign to bring them here. If the UK is to remain a world leader in education, we need to recognise the effects of current Home Office policy and move towards a more workable solution. Professor Philip Nelson, the chair of Research Councils UK, told the Select Committee on Science and Technology recently that
“all of those wonderful achievements that we can all cite about the UK are done by people from a range of nationalities in this country. UK science is not done by UK nationals. It is done by many people.”
The visa process itself should be straightforward, but I had a look at the Home Office website this morning and it gives an indication of the length of time a visa application should take. According to the site, a tier 4 visa application—the simplest student application—from India should take 15 days to process. Unfortunately, that is not a true reflection. I have had reports of applications taking months without a response. We need to be realistic about how long it takes. Visas for short research visits of, say, a few weeks or months—much like those that many UK-based students might make, such as a short spell at CERN—can take so long to process that the research opportunity is lost before the visa is approved. The Government must recognise that research is an international endeavour and a key part of it is getting worldwide access to facilities. There is a need for a workable mechanism that allows international students to come easily to the UK for those short visits.
The new post-study work visa pilot has been viewed with interest. However, in Scotland, where a previous version worked extremely well, our universities have been excluded. That is in a country with an ageing population and where our problem is emigration, not immigration. Post-study work visas could go a long way in tackling skills shortages, particularly in digital and STEM industries. Instead, our institutions are investing in training those students, only for them to return home, taking their newly acquired skills with them, benefiting their home countries but not, crucially, our communities. Scotland, as well as many excellent UK institutions, has been left out of the pilot. I and many of my colleagues have asked questions on the issue. Indeed, on 14 November I asked, at column 5, when we could expect the pilot to be widened to include Scotland. Perhaps the Minister can answer that question today.
We could argue that universities are still managing, but the Brexit process brings the issue of international students clearly into focus. Will the restrictive regimes currently operating be relaxed at all when French or indeed Irish students apply to study here? Section 2 of the Ireland Act 1949 states that Ireland is not a foreign country. Perhaps the Minister could tell me how Irish students will be considered following Brexit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing the debate. There has been an enormous degree of unanimity, and the economic arguments have already been well articulated, so I will not try to repeat them. However, there is one element of the economic argument that I have not yet heard, but which is highly relevant to the debate. As a representative of a manufacturing area, I know that engineering and digital skills are crucial to our future manufacturing success.
Universities have great difficulty in recruiting enough students domestically to fill the available courses. A high proportion of international students take up those courses. To deter such students from coming here to take our world-class courses or working here after graduating makes no sense. That policy deprives manufacturing industry of much needed, crucial strategic skills for the future, which would enable our manufacturing to survive in a post-Brexit economy. It also undermines many university courses, because the funding from international students is crucial to maintaining them. They may not be able to get enough domestic students, and the courses are disproportionately expensive. That is a further reason to have a visa regime that continues to encourage students of STEM subjects.
In a previous incarnation I was the Chair of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. We produced a report on this matter in September 2012, which other hon. Members have mentioned. It was unanimous, and was among several other Select Committee reports that, I believe, unanimously reached the same conclusion: that student visas should not be included in the migration statistics. During interviews with the respective Ministers it became clear that the Home Office and BIS had conflicting views. I think I can paraphrase the Home Office approach by saying that it depended on the United Nations definition, under which a migrant is a person who moves for a period of at least one year to a country other than their country of origin. That is an international tool for comparing migration, but as a basis for public policy it is totally inadequate.
It is interesting that both the USA and Australia—countries that are very concerned about inward migration—have, as it were, finessed the same approach to accommodate an increase in the number of student visas. The US uses the Census Bureau to give numbers, but the Department of Homeland Security treats students as business visitors and tourists—non-immigrant admissions. There is a compelling logic for doing that in this country. Unfortunately, although the logic is evident in every other Department, across the parties and among the public—and public support for the policy has been commented on—that does not seem to be the case in the Home Office. The issue has enormous strategic significance for our post-Brexit experience and trade deals. I should like to elaborate, but in the interest of brevity I shall conclude my remarks there, Mr Gray.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Gray. I am changing the speech that I was going to make, as there have been such fine contributions from everyone. I shall just highlight issues from my personal experience.
In the early days of Namibian independence, I went along to do an assignment on capacity building. I went, as I was asked, to the office of the Prime Minister, where I was met by his senior adviser, who said to me—I think I can do his accent just about perfectly—“Roger, delighted to meet you. How are Glasgow Rangers getting on?” That came as a great shock to me, as an Ayr United supporter. He had spent eight years studying in Glasgow and had two degrees, and after independence he returned to his country.
A short time later, I was at the new University of Namibia, where I was to give some help. There I met the wonderful Professor Peter Katjavivi, who was here recently. He is now the Speaker of the Namibian Parliament. Peter set up the first South West Africa People’s Organisation office in Europe—in London—and when he was here, for years, eventually completed his PhD at Oxford. Some time later, I met a man for whom eventually I would be the best man at his wedding. He is now the permanent secretary to the President of Namibia. His name is Samuel /Goagoseb—I pronounce the forward click for the benefit of Hansard. Samuel was partly educated at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. My experience was just a small personal example of the way we have exported such talent, to great benefit, throughout the world, but I fear that those people might not be able to get access today in an equivalent way, under the types of regimes that we operate.
I also have the pleasure of continuing as an honorary professor at the University of Stirling. I used to teach there on MBA and MSc programmes. These masters programmes at Stirling University benefited hugely, particularly from the many students from India. There has been an utter collapse in the number of students from India coming to our universities. That has led in some cases to the cancellation of previously very well regarded programmes.
I used to sit as the chair of an interdepartmental ethics committee—it took a long time and a lot of practice to say that—and I came across many researchers at Stirling University. I cannot remember a single research proposal that did not involve someone from beyond the UK. International students were fundamentally important to our research capability and to assisting us in having the diverse education from which everyone in the UK benefits.
I appeal to the Minister to listen to the facts and figures he has heard today and to consider the qualitative benefit that encouraging international students brings to our country.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this debate. The issue affects many people in my constituency and certainly needs attention. Like other hon. Members here, I believe in education. I believe that those with a vocation should be facilitated to learn their trade or skill, that those who are desirous of learning should be enabled to do that and that those who can bring skills to our economy must be able to do so. I believe that our universities must be able to welcome foreign students, with the higher tuition they bring, and that they should be in a position to facilitate higher learning.
But in all of this, I believe we should not be taken advantage of. Something the Prime Minister said when she was Home Secretary sticks in my memory:
“We want the best international graduates to stay and contribute to the UK economy. However, the arrangements that we have been left with for students who graduate in the UK are far too generous. They are able to stay for two years, whether or not they find a job and regardless of the skill level of that job. In 2010, when one in 10 UK graduates were unemployed, 39,000 non-EU students with 8,000 dependants took advantage of that generosity.
We will therefore close the current post-study work route from April next year. In future, only graduates who have an offer of a skilled graduate-level job from an employer licensed by the UK Border Agency will be allowed to stay.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 855.]
That does not seem to be unfair. It is our responsibility to provide the highest levels of our education to our own constituents and graduates who are unemployed. It is our privilege to offer the highest level of education to others who want to study in some of the best universities in the world but, with respect, it is not our responsibility to continue to cater for them to the detriment of our own economy.
I cannot give way because the Chairman was very clear about time.
Queen’s University Belfast is an example of some of the good work, student exchange participation, and research and investigation into new drugs that take place. The wealth of talent from overseas enables us to do that great work. Our medical staff are greatly enhanced by those junior doctors, or registrars, from other countries and they could not do without them. I am thankful that that work takes place, but it will not stop because things have been tightened up. It will merely stop our groaning system from being further burdened by responsibilities that are not ours to bear. I understand the need to tighten up some of the controls.
I welcome the fact that Brexit presents the opportunity to find terms of international study that suit students and the higher education institutions without impacting on the decision to ensure that we do not adversely affect our economy. I understand how the uncertainty of Brexit may impact on those who want to come here to live and to educate themselves, and I am sure that American universities are facing similar uncertainties, but this is not the end of international students. It is the beginning of teamwork to promote our universities and the benefits of coming here to work and study. Brexit does not signify the death knell, as I and others have said in recent days. It presents opportunities, and the universities can and must be part of this process. We must put in place agreements to promote our universities and allow visas for students, but the correct standards must apply.
I understand that India and other nations want a change to the system, and it is essential that we work with them as much as possible to provide an accessible system. It must never be forgotten that visas are a protection for us. During her visit to India, the Prime Minister indicated that she was looking at student visas for those from India, and that is important. Our universities want foreign students, foreign students want our universities and our Government want to facilitate this. We must find a balance between that and our security. There is a way and the Home Office must find it. The Home Secretary must outline how that balance will be struck and the Brexit team must deliver the negotiation of agreements to enhance and support European uptake.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing such an important and timely debate. What we have heard so far proves that students contribute not only to higher institutions, but to our economy. As my hon. Friend said, international students’ day tomorrow—17 November—is an opportunity for the Government to make students their priority. The economic benefits in research, employment and opportunities for trade and international alliances have been well versed by all my colleagues in the Chamber. Our institutions in Scotland and throughout the UK are world renowned and attract the brightest and the best. We should celebrate that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) highlighted how the unrealistic thresholds and the crude way in which we are seeking to reduce immigration figures simply do not serve our constituencies or local communities well. The reputational damage to institutions and the UK globally will not be forgotten for a long time, when the brightest and the best—those who could find a cure for cancer or any number of illnesses—are unable to secure places at Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, St Andrew’s and elsewhere because they cannot secure the visas they need to come to our best institutions.
My hon. Friend and I share campuses of the West of Scotland University, whose principal is Australian. Does she agree with him, as I do, when he says the Government’s proposal to restrict universities from recruiting overseas students is an ill-considered and retrograde step that will damage our economy, our competitiveness and our cultural standing?
Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I will come to the West of Scotland University.
Our advantage is that we are a world-leading country and we have world-leading institutions. I call on the Government to make the necessary practical changes and to look at the pilot scheme, the tier 2 visa, the work study visa and so on, and to consider how much more there is to be gained from bringing the brightest and the best to our country and retaining them than there is from sending them elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) has fascinating stories to tell. Unfortunately, my stories from Stirling University are slightly different, and I do not think the songs I learned are fit for Hansard, so I will move on.
International students matter, and we have heard about the direct impact that the Government’s policies can have on the prosperity of constituencies such as mine. My home town of Hamilton is rich in heritage and once had a thriving town centre. Only two weeks ago, I launched a joint consultation with my Scottish Parliament counterpart on the need to take action on town centre regeneration and to consider the importance of Hamilton being a university town, where Lanarkshire’s only university is located. However, like many communities across the UK, there are challenges because town centres and institutions with a student population and employment generate the local economy, but that is dwindling. This is in no small part due to the Government’s policies.
One saving grace is that the student population of universities, and particularly the West of Scotland University, enhances the town and the environment. I studied as an undergraduate at Stirling University, which is a fine example of a thriving university town. I also went to the world renowned Glasgow University—something I share with you, Mr Gray. As a group, students contribute to the local economy. It is clear that where there is a university institution, the local economy benefits. The financial contribution is huge, and we need more students, particularly those who live in or close to student accommodation and spend time in town centres. There is a direct benefit to the economy, and we must not forget that.
Every year, the University of the West of Scotland welcomes more than 1,000 international students from 65 different countries around the world. In Hamilton, students contribute £69 million to the local economy. Recently, when the university took the decision to move to a new campus, it was clear that this expansion was with a view to attracting more international investment. In a letter to me, the university’s principal, Craig Mahoney, said that the Government’s plan
“would be significantly damaging the University of the West of Scotland and the wider Scottish and UK higher education system”.
I therefore call on the Minister to please consider the concerns raised by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. In a world of uncertainty, all Governments must provide leadership. The proposal also sends a message of exclusion at a time when language must be about inclusion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing this very important debate. It gives me great pleasure to place it on the record that Her Majesty’s Opposition believe that we should remove international students from Home Office migration statistics. The purpose of that policy, apart from making the stats more accurate in relation to people who are subject to immigration legislation, is to contribute to the detoxification of this area of British society and political life, beginning with the obvious benefit to our university sector. Of course, as hon. Members have said over and again, the truth about international students is that, far from being a burden, they make this country better off in innumerable economic, social and philosophical ways.
We have heard that there were 436,000 students from overseas in the UK in 2014-15 and that they comprised 19% of the total. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—I bow to the Department for BIS, although I know that there are different figures—estimated that the economic value of the contribution from international students was £14 billion in 2014-15 and was set to rise to £26 billion in 2025. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) said, this is not just about what they pay in fees; it is their financial contribution and their contribution to growth and GDP in many of our great cities. The presence of overseas students creates more than 250,000 jobs here.
The Home Secretary and her predecessor have claimed, falsely, that very large numbers of international students overstay their visas and so contribute significantly to the breach of their immigration target. They have yet to validate that claim. The most recent legal case collapsed in the Appeal Court as the Home Office attempted to use hearsay evidence that students had fraudulently obtained English qualifications. It has to be stressed that the vast majority of students return home after study. In 2014-15, fewer than 6,000 students applied for a tier 2 visa, applicable to non-EU students who wish to stay here, and that 6,000 may actually be too few for the overall needs of the economy. As I think many hon. Members know, an unpublished report from the Home Office, drafted when the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, seemed to show that the number of student overstayers is tiny, just 1% of the total—approximately 1,500. Therefore, they make no significant impact on overall immigration numbers.
Ministers in the past have said that one problem has been the abuse that overseas students have been involved in, yet we have seen little evidence to support that. We heard about one student working on the checkout at Tesco from a previous Immigration Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but we have had no evidence. If there is evidence, it should be brought forward.
I am grateful to the distinguished former Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs for making that point.
Several stakeholders oppose what is happening. They include Universities UK, the teaching unions, the National Union of Students and many local authorities where education is a much-needed growth industry—cities such as Sheffield and Coventry. This is not just about the top 10 or Russell Group universities; our university sector benefits in so many ways from the contribution of international students.
If international student numbers are reduced in the way that Ministers seem to want, there will be a funding shortfall for universities and, as colleagues have said, courses for which international students make up a disproportionate number of the students may be imperilled. The Government’s policy on international students, with its financial implications, implies either further Government borrowing, which I do not find credible, or increased fees for UK-born students.
I understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently floated the idea of excluding international students from the figures only to be slapped down by the Prime Minister. Despite that, the Conservative hon. Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) has written that the “smart” thing to do is to exclude international students from the migration statistics. On this issue, it appears that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are on their own.
As we have heard, polls consistently show a majority in favour of excluding international students from the migration statistics; typically 60% are in favour and 30% against. As a follow-up, we should look at reforming the policy on tier 2 visa applications, to make it easier for non-EU graduates to work here in sectors that require them, whether they are doctors or IT specialists.
Let me say just a few words on India. As we have heard, the number of overseas students from India has plummeted as a consequence of both the rhetoric and the policies of this Government. The Prime Minister, I think to her surprise, on her recent visit to India, realised that there was great concern about the situation in relation to its students in the UK. That was at the heart of the negotiations. And what did the Prime Minister offer? Golden visas for the super-wealthy. There was no attempt to address the real concerns of Government and society in India about the way we are talking about and treating international students. It is an entirely self-defeating policy. Indian students do not want to stay on. They come here because it is one of the best education systems in the world and then they probably go to Silicon Valley. The Minister may be aware that the chief executive officer of Google is Indian; that is the path to fame and fortune for Indian students. We should be glad that they recognise the quality of our education and want to come here to study at least.
Earlier today, the Minister expressed concern that no one was leading on immigration for Her Majesty’s Opposition. I can tell him that we do have someone leading. It is the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, the shadow Home Secretary. The Minister seemed to wonder why I would bother my head with immigration. I do bother my head with immigration and I am happy and proud to lead on it. Over nearly 30 years, I have consistently been in the top 10 of MPs dealing with immigration casework. With the solitary exception of my good and right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I have probably done more immigration casework, under both Labour and Conservative Ministers, than anyone in the Chamber today. I bother my head with immigration because I am the child of immigrants, and I am committed to a debate on immigration, on both sides of the House, that is based on fact, that puts the economy, society and British values first and that is not driven by short-term political concerns—I say that to all Members. It is a concern of mine; it is a concern of my constituents. Whether or not many millions of people up and down the country are frightened by the current tenor of the debate on immigration, both here and in the US, it is a concern of mine—it is a long-standing interest of mine—and I am proud to say that as shadow Home Secretary, I do indeed lead on immigration.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing the debate and I thank all hon. Members who participated in it for their worthwhile, considered and thoughtful contributions on such a wide-reaching and important topic. I think that we can all agree that it is in the best interests of the UK as a whole to ensure that the United Kingdom continues to attract the best and brightest international students to study here. High-quality international students make an important contribution to the UK. Our universities are strengthened by the presence of some of the finest minds from around the world, and the international students themselves benefit from the chance to receive an education at some of the world’s best educational institutions.
Much emphasis has been placed today on the desire for Scotland to re-establish a post-study work visa. Hon. Members may remember the Fresh Talent scheme that operated in Scotland between 2004 and 2008. That scheme placed few restrictions on those who wanted to stay in the UK to work post-study, and granted free access to the whole of the UK labour market. An evidence review published by Scottish Government Social Research in 2008 found that only 44% of applicants remained in Scotland at the end of their two years’ leave on the scheme, and a significant proportion were not in skilled work appropriate to the level of education.
It is very difficult to ensure that a person who gets a visa to work, potentially, in Scotland is stopped from travelling elsewhere in the UK. Certainly, the pull of the south-east and London is one we are all too well aware of.
In 2008, the tier 1 post-study work visa replaced the Fresh Talent scheme and was introduced country-wide. This route saw high levels of abuse, with evidence of large numbers of fraudulent applications and individuals deliberately using the student route solely as an avenue to work in the UK, with no intention to study and many in unskilled work. I am sure that hon. Members are not seriously suggesting that a return to a completely open post-study work route that does not lead to skilled work would be advantageous for any part of the United Kingdom.
The UK already has an attractive offer for international graduates of UK universities. Those who can find a skilled job are free to do so. There is no limit to the number of tier 4 students who can move to a tier 2 general skilled worker route, nor do they count against the annual tier 2 cap. Around 6,000 tier 4 international students move to tier 2 annually, and that number has been rising year on year. However, that does not mean that the Government do not remain open to keeping our offer for international students under constant review, to ensure that we help our renowned institutions to attract talent from around the world. One such recent development was the launch of the tier 4 visa pilot with the universities of Bath, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College in July.
I suspect I am going to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question before he raises it. May I take this opportunity to reassure hon. Members that those institutions were chosen because of their consistently low visa refusal rates, lest anyone imagines we might have a conspiracy against Scotland?
I am not aware of any Scottish universities that are not operating within the rules, but the four chosen for the pilot were those with the best performance in terms of their visa refusal rates. Indeed, the whole point of the pilot is to find out the benefits and advantages so that it can be rolled out more generally. I know that a number of Scottish universities, such as the University of Glasgow, which has increased its overseas non-EU student numbers by 32% between 2012 and 2015, are just the sorts of institutions that have shown how successful they can be in attracting overseas students.
As part of this pilot, certain visa eligibility checks have been delegated to the universities, and the documentary requirements for students taking part are reduced. The students also have additional leave at the end of their course to enable them to take advantage of the UK’s current post-study work offer. Monitoring of the pilot is ongoing, and the results of that will be evaluated to inform any decision to roll the pilot out more widely. But, if it is a success, I hope that other high-quality institutions throughout the UK will be able to benefit, including those—I am sure the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East will be glad to hear—in Scotland, and, I hope, also in Yorkshire.
Any change for the best-performing institutions will build upon the excellent offer that the United Kingdom already has for international students, with the intention of allowing the UK to remain the second most popular destination in the world for international higher education students, behind only the United States of America. Our approach to reform continues to strive towards two key goals: first, to ensure that our fantastic institutions can attract the very best and brightest students from around the world, and secondly, to protect the student migration route from abuse. I am sure that hon. Members here today can agree that this is a sound foundation on which to build.
Before the Minister moves on to his next chapter, I would like to go back to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) about the possibility of attaching the condition that students could work only in Scotland. Is the Minister aware that Scotland has a distinctive tax code to reflect Holyrood’s tax powers, and that it is therefore very easy to keep track of whether or not somebody is working in Scotland?
It is very important, throughout the whole immigration system, that people who have visas that allow limited work can be tracked. Certainly, using the tax system is one way of doing that. Another key point that I would like to draw to hon. Members’ attention, is that there remains no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to the UK to study. We do not propose to cap or limit the number of overseas students who can come to study in the UK. As the Home Secretary recently announced, we will shortly be seeking views on study migration routes. I encourage all interested parties, which I am sure will include many institutions in the constituencies of hon. Members here today, to participate and ensure that every point of view is heard.
The Minister is talking about the consultation and the Home Secretary’s statement and, in his earlier remarks, he talked about quality. Will he confirm or deny that the Home Office intends to use the teaching excellence framework as a measure for quality in relation to the visa regime?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his time here that when one is in consultation, one listens to views and then comes to a conclusion. At this stage we are listening to points, including the ones that he has made. Indeed, one of the points that he made during his contribution was regarding the number of Indian students coming to the UK, and how we are going to prioritise recovering the number of Indian students entering the UK to study. May I point out that we issue more tier 4 visas to students from India than from any other country except China and the United States? The then Immigration Minister visited India in February 2016, and the Prime Minister herself has just returned, to ensure the message is clear that we welcome Indian students to our world-class institutions.
We have seen increases in the number of study visas granted elsewhere; China has gone up by 9% and Indonesia by 14% in the year ending March 2016, which shows that our immigration system allows for growth. The proportion of Indian students coming to study in the UK at a university increased from around 50% in 2010 to around 90% in 2015. This trend of smaller volumes of students with greater concentrations in higher education is likely to reflect the recent policy changes to clamp down on immigration abuse by non-genuine students and bogus colleges. In 2015, around 90% of Indian students who applied for a tier 4 visa were issued one; that is up from 86% in 2014, and 83% the year before that. The Indian student grant rate is higher than in our competitor countries. Indeed, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) asked about the time it may take for visas to be processed, and I confirm that 99% of Indian tier 4 students received a decision within the 15-day target.
I apologise for pressing the Minister on this point, but it is important. Next week will be the last time that this House considers the Higher Education and Research Bill, of which the teaching excellence framework is a central proposal. Can he simply deny or confirm that the Home Office intends to use the teaching excellence framework as a measure for quality in relation to the visa regime?
The hon. Gentleman is very tenacious, but I will repeat the point that I have already made. We are in the process of a consultation, are listening to views, including those made during this debate, and will come to a settled view in due course.
Including students in the net migration statistics is a point that has been made repeatedly during the debate. The Office for National Statistics, which is the UK’s independent statistical authority, has today published a report that states:
“The net migration figures are used by ONS to calculate the size of the UK population in any given year and they include international students since they contribute to population growth. These population figures are used by national and local government to inform their planning and removing any key group would have consequences for this.”
This has been a very spirited debate. I conclude both by thanking all hon. Members for their contributions, and by reiterating that genuine students will continue to be welcomed to the United Kingdom. This country is fortunate to have world-class educational institutions with formidable reputations, and this Government will continue to help them to ensure that they can continue to bring in the best and brightest students from across the globe.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered immigration rules for international students.