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House of Commons Hansard
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Post-study Work Schemes
08 December 2016
Volume 618

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee of Session 2015-16, Post-study work schemes, HC 593, and the Government response, HC 787.

Mr Rosindell, it is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship in this short debate on the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report about post-study work schemes for Scotland. One of the first things that we did after I assumed the Chair of the Committee, which is obviously a pleasure and a privilege, was to go to Scotland and ask the people of Scotland, regular contributors to the Committee’s work and other stakeholders what they wanted from the Committee. I felt that was the right thing to do, and I think colleagues on the Committee who are here today found that a valuable and worthwhile session. It helped us to create a report about the Committee’s work and decide what work we would undertake during this Parliament.

One key theme that emerged, and that people stressed to us that they were really keen for us to debate and discuss, was the prospect of a post-study work scheme for Scotland. We would expect the higher education sector to say that, and of course it did, but we also heard clear representations from business, trade unions and practically every sector in Scotland. We therefore decided to publish a report on post-study work schemes, and we are pleased that it has received so much attention in Scotland.

During our inquiry, the Committee heard from Universities Scotland, the UK Council for International Student Affairs, Colleges Scotland, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Institute of Directors, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Government, and the Immigration Minister himself and his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland. Essentially, we heard a practical chorus of overwhelming support for the reintroduction of a dedicated post-study work scheme for Scotland. The only discordant voices in that general chorus of desire for such a scheme to return were those of the man who has his hand up—the Immigration Minister—and his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland. Everywhere else we went, every submission that we secured and every piece of evidence that we heard during the many sessions that we had on this issue very much supported the idea that Scotland should have a dedicated post-study work scheme to retain our international students.

It is perhaps fortuitous that we are having this debate the week after the Committee published our report “Demography of Scotland and the implications for devolution,” which I very much recommend to the House. The Committee is particularly pleased with the report, as it offers a fascinating snapshot of the population and demographic trends in Scotland. Essentially, it concludes that Scotland’s population is growing, which practically everyone in Scotland welcomes. Population growth could not make the Immigration Minister more miserable when he gets his figures for the rest of the United Kingdom, but in Scotland we welcome it and recognise it as a key factor in our economic growth and wellbeing.

Some of our findings in that report are interesting and pertinent to this debate. There are troughs and spikes in Scotland’s population. One of the peaks is among 17 to 19-year-olds, among whom there is immigration to Scotland. The Committee interpreted that as people coming to Scotland to be educated because of our wonderful higher education sector. Our universities are world-class; three of them are in the top 100. However, the Committee was somewhat concerned by the trough in 22 to 25-year-olds, among whom there is not immigration but emigration. People at that critical age, who are at the start of their working careers and could make a real contribution to Scotland’s economy and wellbeing, are actually leaving Scotland. That worried us. The Committee interpreted that as students who we had educated to a high standard in our wonderful universities leaving the nation of Scotland. We found it hard to understand why on earth we would open our doors to international students who wanted to come to Scotland and enjoy the experience of being there, educate them to a high standard, and then boot them out. We found that very difficult to comprehend.

Let me outline the current situation and conditions in Scotland. In 2014-15, there were 29,210 non-EU international students enrolled in Scottish higher education institutions, representing 12.6% of the total higher education student population. In 2013-14, the last year for which we have figures, fees from non-EU international students made up 12.5% of the total income of Scottish HEIs. It is hard to get economic assessments, but it has been estimated that non-EU international students contribute more than £400 million in off-campus expenditure, which obviously benefits the many towns and cities that have a wonderful university as part of their community.

That financial contribution is obviously welcome—it was welcomed by practically everyone we spoke to—but my colleagues on the Committee will remember clearly that when we visited Aberdeen and were hosted by the University of Aberdeen, it was stressed to us that although that was great, those international students also enriched our college and university campuses with their experiences from different nations and made those campuses multicultural and multinational. Learning alongside students from all around the world gives indigenous Scottish students a fantastic experience. Universities Scotland stressed to us that that was as important as international students’ financial contribution.

Non-EU students currently study in Scotland on general tier 4 student visas. Under the conditions of that visa, those students can study and work while they are in Scotland, but critically, they have four months to find secure employment after they complete their course or they have to leave the United Kingdom. It seems that the only available route for students to try to secure employment is the route between tier 4 and tier 2—a route that was described to us by employers’ organisations, trade unions and industry representatives as complicated, tortuous and almost impossible for some employers to secure. To be eligible for that route, graduates must have completed their course and have a job offer with a salary of at least £20,800 from an employer that is licensed to sponsor a tier 2 visa. Employers’ organisations told us that that was cumbersome and burdensome and some employers did not even bother trying, because they knew that it would be a tortuous process.

That £20,800 minimum salary for a tier 2 visa applies right across the UK; it makes no difference whether you are in London, Inverness or Northern Ireland. It may be possible for a 22-year-old in London to get a graduate entry-level salary of £20,800, but that is almost impossible for a new graduate in Scotland to secure. We see that in the evidence. We found during our inquiry that tier 2 sponsors are mainly in London and the south-east; in 2013, 63% of them were located there, compared with only 6% in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for giving way. He will recall that one of the key parts of the evidence that the Committee heard was Scottish universities themselves saying that when they take on some postgraduate employees, they do not pay them £20,800 a year. Even they are not able to retain the very best of the staff they train.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot on. The Committee took issue with the idea that £20,800 is somehow applicable to the Scottish situation. I will come back to that point, but first I will make a few other remarks about how we could resolve this general situation.

In the past, we had a dedicated post-study work scheme in Scotland—the famous Fresh Talent initiative, which ran so successfully between 2005 and 2008. It was initiated by the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell and had the overwhelming support of the Home Office down here. I still meet students in Perth who studied at the University of the Highlands and Islands who are products of Fresh Talent and are now making an incredible contribution to my community and constituency. Fresh Talent was subsumed into the general tier 1 post-study work visa scheme that ran from 2008 to 2012. Although that was still a post-study work scheme, it ended Scotland’s advantage in being able to secure and keep international students. We did not mind that as long as we still had some means to secure international students who wanted to remain in Scotland. It was only with the election of a Conservative-led Government in 2010 that we saw the beginnings of the end of any dedicated post-study work scheme.

I will try to understand the Government’s motives for all that. In the response to us, they said that the scheme was apparently “too generous”. I would hazard a guess—perhaps I am out of place here—that that is something to do with the Government having almost an obsession with immigration numbers, and that their general desire to get immigration down from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands was behind the idea of closing any notion of a post-study work scheme. International students were an easy target—of course they were—and we could see where they were coming from. Everything has to be done through the book—in order to secure international students, universities and higher education institutions have to go through a complicated process. It was so easy to close those routes and, instead of doing the hard work about illegal immigration, target the students. However, targeting students was a singularly self-defeating initiative. The people we want to stop coming into the country and staying here are the most educated—those we spent a fortune on—who want to stay in our country.

Of course, a lot of things were said about what the Government did. The Scottish Affairs Committee, before I assumed the Chair, did a report about that and warned of the consequences, as did the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I believe you were a member in those days, Mr Rosindell. Those reports said that there would be consequences and an impact, and an impact there has been. One thing the Committee was keen to discover and determine was what sort of impacts the closure of that route had had on Scotland, and the clear message we got from practically everyone was that the impact has been significant, negative and stark.

We cannot get a proper picture because the evidence is patchy, so the only thing we could look at was migration from tier 4 to tier 2, but we were able to estimate that there has been a fall-away of 80% in international students continuing to work in Scotland after their studies. That has had an immense adverse impact on our access to talent, and it has resulted in increased skills shortages in all key sectors the length and breadth of the Scottish economy.

More than that, there is the disincentive value of not having a particular route. We heard again and again from representatives of the education sector that Scottish universities are now losing out in the race to secure international talent from across the world. We are moving into a different type of working environment in the ability to share and transfer knowledge. The knowledge economy will be so important to economic growth as we go forward, and Scotland is in a great position because of the quality of our universities and the research done in Scotland, but we are now told that there is a massive disincentive to coming to Scotland.

Students sitting in, say, India, Australia or Kenya, and looking at the UK will be hearing all this stuff about Brexit and the splendid isolationism that the UK seems to want to be part of. If they are hearing that all the debate about leaving the European Union was about immigration and people not being welcome, they are not going to be particularly inclined to seek out a university in Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom, to come to and study. They will be thinking, “What on earth would I go there for, when I would be made most unwelcome and probably get booted out the minute I finish my course?”

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Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a real risk that we will lose competitive advantage to other Commonwealth and English-speaking nations such as Canada and Australia because of these restrictive rules? The University of Glasgow has expressed exactly the concerns he highlights and we all have constituency examples of those. I had a constituent who was literally a rocket scientist who was determined to work here and the UK Government’s visa restrictions meant that she could not.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. We all have examples of that, and it is utterly depressing that we are booting out young people of supreme ability and talent whom we have spent a fortune educating and who have such potential to add to our community. I come to his important point about the options that are available. We are obviously an Anglophone country—we have had the English language since Gaelic, and I know that he is keen on that particular issue—but there are now options in Canada, Australia and the United States. I know the Minister, when he addresses us, will tell us that there is still growth in international students. Yes, I concede that there is still growth in the number of international students coming to Scottish universities, but it is just 1%. Growth in Canada, Australia and the US is 8% to 11%, so we are obviously falling behind.

What we conclude is that the current post-study work routes do not meet the needs of Scotland, and by quite a margin. To try to be helpful to the Minister—we thought we were being helpful, anyway—we suggested doing a few minor things, which would not upset anybody, to tweak and improve the current situation. We started from the minor tweaks and moved through to suggesting a stand-alone post-study work scheme for Scotland—we looked at all the options available.

There are things that the Government could do so readily and easily without destroying their reputation for immigration obsession. For example, they could extend the length of time to find a tier 4 job. Why is that four months? What reason is there for that? They could create some bridge to enable students to move from tier 4 to tier 2, because all of a sudden they are at a cliff edge where, if they have not got a job or a sponsor, they are out. They could give people help to try to find a job. Then there is the issue of a regional salary. The minimum salary is set at £20,800. That does not work for Scotland—it is almost impossible to find a graduate-level job at that. How about regional variation? We suggested to the Minister that the Migration Advisory Committee look at that. I thought that was a very reasonable suggestion. Another thing the Government could do, which is totally within their gift at the tweaking end of how they could help to address and sort this problem, is reduce the burden of tier 2 sponsorship on employers. Overwhelmingly, employers told us that it was really difficult to secure international students. Those are things that could be done.

We also recommended that there should be a return to a post-study work scheme—we even suggested that a Scotland-only scheme could be possible. We have had the experience of Fresh Talent, which worked perfectly well. I know the Government had issues with it—we will probably hear a little about that from the Minister—and there were problems associated with it, but we learned from that experience and we could bring forward another scheme.

Things have changed since 2008 when Fresh Talent ended—I accept that. The immigration system has changed and we have a much more—I will use the word “cautious” approach to immigration issues, but, because of that caution, the Government have put a number of things in place. For example, landlords are now required to carry out rent checks before entering into tenancy agreements, whereby one could check the residency of international students. For some time now, employers have been required to carry out right-to-work checks on employees, and the partial devolution of income tax means that we have a perfect register to ensure that people who come to Scotland remain in Scotland—we can check where they are.

I think the Minister will tell us that that would not work for Scotland because people would go to the south-east and to the rest of England, but there is now a range of means and mechanisms available to Scotland to ensure that people who come to study in Scotland remain in Scotland. The thing is, if they break any of the conditions—if they are checked and they are in the south—they will just get kicked out. What is the point in that? They could come to a country that would welcome them, that wants them to be there and that recognises their ability to contribute, or they could go to the south-east and into the black market and be ever fretful of being pursued by the authorities. So of course this could work; there is no good reason that a Scotland-only scheme could not work.

Lastly, there is the commitment that the Government have already given us on trying to resolve the situation. I do not think that the Minister recognises our particular issues on this or understands some of these points. I think he has heard the chorus of complaints about the issue and the desire for a post-study work scheme to return to Scotland, but let us remind him of the commitment that the Government have to work with the Scottish Government in order to pursue that. That was in the Smith commission, which said:

“The Scottish and UK Governments should work together to explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students…to remain in Scotland and contribute”.

Nothing has been done on that, and I am not surprised by that given where the Government are when it comes to this. Instead, the Government response—I do not really want to go into it—was singularly disappointing, almost frustrating. To turn around and tell us, as they did in their short response, that the current arrangements are “excellent” is almost a slap in the face to the higher education institutions of Scotland and those who depend on them. They are not excellent, Minister—they are woeful, pitiful and not working for Scotland.

We are asking the Government to have another look at the matter and to have a look at our population and demography, because they are linked and they suggest a way forward for Scotland on the issue. We in Scotland do not share the Government’s obsession with immigration. In fact, quite the opposite; we actually value people coming to our country. We are not full up in Scotland. We see the value to our economy of immigration, particularly high-value immigration. The Government must try not to put their immigration obsession upon Scotland.

We in the Committee think we have produced a rounded report. It suggests a number of things the Government could do, from minor tweaking, which would help the current situation, to wholescale reform. It is disappointing that the Minister has singularly refused to do any of those things. With my colleagues from Scotland behind me, I tell the Minister to think again, to do the right thing for Scotland and to allow us to have a post-study work scheme to grow our economy and to keep international students in Scotland.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Scotland has a long history of excellence in higher education. As a beautiful country with outstanding international universities, it is a very attractive place for students from around the globe—despite the UK Government’s best policy efforts to put them off.

International students are being hammered again and again, and at some point they might decide it is not worth the hassle and the hostility from UK Visas and Immigration and take their valued custom elsewhere. The UK Government say they are delivering an immigration system that is working in the national interest. I have to disagree. With an ageing population and with skills shortages across many sectors, it seems to me that policies that block successful routes for the brightest talent to stay and work are acting very much against our national interest. The Secretary of State for Scotland admitted as much in his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee—if only he would make his case more forcefully to his Cabinet colleagues in Westminster, instead of being the Cabinet mouthpiece in Scotland.

On immigration, as with so many issues, one size does not fit all. If the Tories do not wake up to that fact, they will wake up to a UK without Scotland sooner rather than later. It is not beyond the wit of the Government to modify policies to meet differing needs in different parts of the UK—they simply choose not to. I, along with my colleagues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) mentioned, have to question why the post-study work visa was dropped. We know that it worked and that it successfully provided a workplace opportunity for new graduates in Scotland. As he said, we have seen 80% fewer people move to work visas since that was dropped.

The official excuse of widespread fraud seems to be a bit of a fraud in itself. The evidence from the Scottish university sector shows that it has an impeccable record as sponsors of genuine, high-calibre students. A leaked Government paper reported in The Times suggested that 99% of international students abide by the terms of their visa and return home when it runs out. Dropping the post-study work visa is perhaps to do with the Government’s failing target to cut net migration, which my hon. Friend also referred to. That is something they know that cannot even properly measure, let alone control.

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The hon. Lady spoke of “widespread fraud”. That is not something that we are worried about for universities, but it applies to more than 900 colleges, some of which had been taking people on courses that did not even exist. That is why we had to take action in that regard. She should not confuse our universities with some of those bogus language schools and other colleges that have lost their right to take overseas students.

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Unfortunately, there are probably none of those colleges in Scotland. I am afraid the effect on the high-quality universities he refers to is significant, and he is not allowing for that in the immigration regulations that he is laying down.

Students make up the biggest numbers in the points-based system by far, which makes them an easy tap to turn on and off, and vulnerable to the whims of Whitehall number crunchers eager to massage immigration figures without the risk of pesky appeals. I accept that, rightly or wrongly, people across the UK have concerns about immigration—perhaps it is those who are struggling due to the lack of Government investment in housing, health, schooling or jobs in their area—but the fact is that they are not worried about students. A recent survey showed that 76% of the UK public do not regard international students as immigrants at all. Universities in Scotland and the global talent they attract are massively important to our economy. There are 31,000 non-EU international students across Scotland from 180 countries. They contribute many millions of pounds per annum to Scotland’s economy. That is a tap we need to keep flowing—not turn off.

It is not only about the numbers. Having people from so many different cultures living in Scotland greatly enriches our society in ways that we really cannot measure. Making the place less attractive to students, and making them part of the overall hostile environment strategy, is damaging to our universities. We cannot be happy to take their fees but hostile to letting them stay and work for a while. Students will vote with their feet and universities will suffer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, we have heard of big increases in the recruitment of international students—10% or 11% growth in 2015—in competitor nations, such as the US and Australia. That was the US’s largest increase in 35 years, while the intake of non-EU international students across Scotland and the UK remains flat.

Scotland is fed up of being told to put up and shut up. We implore the UK Government to look at the evidence, listen to the university sector and help take Scotland forward, not haud us back.

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It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell, and to follow two comprehensive and compelling speeches on the reintroduction of the post-study work visa.

Frankly, the Government’s current immigration policy is completely failing Scotland. When gathering evidence for the Scottish Affairs Committee, we found that international students without doubt have an enormous positive impact on Scotland. That was recognised in all of the evidence we gathered from everyone we spoke to during our evidence sessions, including the Scottish and UK Governments. Not only do non-EU international students contribute an eighth of the total income of Scottish higher education institutions, it is also estimated that they contribute more than £400 million in off-campus expenditure.

In addition to those financial benefits, bringing together students from different nations creates a global environment in Scottish universities that benefits both the UK and international students. If that is not enough, it has even been backed by the UK Government’s own statistics. The Home Office has estimated that the number of non-EU international students moving to work visas after their studies has fallen by more than 80%. The Home Office could not provide separate figures for Scotland, but the evidence the Committee collected showed that the impact on Scotland, where higher education is the third largest sector, is both significant and, sadly, negative.

Scotland has different demographic needs from other parts of the UK, as we found in the Scottish Affairs Committee’s most recent report, which was published only a couple of weeks back. That is due to slower population growth and a need to expand the size of the workforce. Scotland also faces significant skills shortages in a variety of sectors. Retaining non-EU international graduates to work in Scotland is an important element of the response to those challenges. The report also recommended that the UK Government work constructively with the Scottish Government to introduce a formal scheme to allow international students graduating in Scotland to remain and contribute to economic activity. That principle enjoys cross-party support in Scotland, as well as being strongly backed by the business sector.

Given that two published reports have said more or less the same thing, it is now clear that the UK Government must act—and swiftly. To put that into perspective, I am blessed with not one but two universities in my constituency of Dundee, both of which have felt a huge impact since the UK Government ended the tier 1 post-study work visa. Indeed, the principals of both Dundee University and Abertay University have been vocal in their support for post-study work schemes that attract international students, all of whom make a valuable contribution to university and city life.

Professor Pete Downes, principal of the University of Dundee, said that an improved post-study work visa would

“put Scotland back on a competitive footing with universities in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It would make life a lot easier for employers and it would help to address Scotland’s skill gaps”.

Only yesterday, when taking evidence on Scotland’s place in Europe, the Scottish Affairs Committee listened to economist Professor Anton Muscatelli describe the post-study work visa as a “hugely beneficial scheme”.

The Scottish Affairs Committee laid out several options for improving post-study work routes, ranging from minor changes to a more substantial overhaul, all of which could be readily implemented and would solve many of the challenges that both employers and international graduates face in Scotland. Those proposals, which are both pragmatic and feasible, include extending the length of time that tier 4 visa holders have to find a tier 2 job; creating what can only be described as a bridge visa, to give international graduates sufficient time to find a tier 2 job; having regional salary caps for tier 2 visas, to reflect different wages across the UK; and reducing the burden to employers of tier 2 sponsorship.

It goes without saying that all the evidence the UK Government have received through our Select Committee report has been completely disregarded. They seem more driven by ideology than pragmatic outcomes. I am extremely disappointed by the UK Government’s response to the report. They completely rejected calls for a more flexible post-study work visa system for international students in Scotland. The report and recommendations, which were based on extensive discussions with businesses, universities and immigration lawyers, were disregarded by the Immigration Minister, who claimed in the Government response—this has to be the best euphemism I have ever heard—that the work visas already available to international graduates

“comprise an excellent post-study work offer”.

It is interesting to note that even after dismissing our findings, the UK Government are now trialling a new tier 4 visa for some postgraduate students in four universities in England, and—would you believe it?—not a single Scottish university has been included in that pilot. When will the UK Government listen? The calls from Scotland for a more flexible post-study work visa are overwhelming, but they have so far fallen on deaf ears.

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The hon. Gentleman talked about salary levels in Scotland. May I respectfully point out that salaries in Scotland are higher than in the UK as a whole? That means if we were to apply regional salary requirements, the minimum salary required to sponsor a tier 2 migrant in Scotland would be higher than it is currently, using the UK-wide data.

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I hear the Minister’s point, but I do not know of any students who graduate from university and find a starting salary of £20,800. The problem is where the threshold begins, which makes it almost impossible for people to continue to work straight after leaving university.

What is the point of spending week after week gathering evidence from different voices from across Scotland when no one is listening? The Government’s immigration policy in no way recognises Scotland’s needs or serves our economic and societal interests. Work study visas are not in isolation. The Government continue to resist pragmatic change that would not only help Scotland to attract international students but support the impact of Scotland’s ageing demographic. What would really benefit Scotland is the full devolving of immigration power, so that we can ensure Scotland’s thriving future.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am grateful for the Scottish Affairs Committee’s work on this most important subject.

In Scotland we usually associate depopulation with rural areas that struggle to create jobs and retain young people in their communities. Areas such as the highlands and islands and Argyll and Bute do indeed contend with depopulation and have done so for hundreds of years. However, what is less recognised is that my constituency of Inverclyde, just 40 minutes from Scotland’s largest city, has some of the highest rates of depopulation in Scotland.

A report from Inverclyde Council concluded that Inverclyde’s rate of depopulation was proportionally higher than that of any local authority in the UK between 1981 and 2009. Over the same period, the number of young people in Inverclyde aged under 24 has fallen by 42%—almost double the rate of decline we have seen across Scotland as a whole. Since 1951, Inverclyde’s population has shrunk by more than 57,000 people and is projected to decline for at least 20 more years. There are no easy or simple solutions to that problem, but if we are to see Scotland and Inverclyde reach their full economic potential, we need people. To help to get those people, we need a favourable immigration policy that addresses our specific circumstances.

The UK Government told us that they are

“delivering an immigration system which works in the national interest and is fair to British citizens.”

Unfortunately, that is simply not a realistic appraisal of the effects of UK immigration policy. Whether it is spousal, work or post-study work visas, our immigration system does not work in the interests of Scotland or my constituency. The UK Government have also said:

“Uncontrolled, mass immigration also makes it difficult to maintain social cohesion, puts pressure on public services and can drive down wages for people on low incomes.”

I assure the Minister that I am more concerned about uncontrolled emigration and its effects on social cohesion and our ability to maintain social services, as well as the way in which it stifles investment and employment opportunities. In fact, over the years, the immigrants who have chosen to live in Inverclyde have contributed far more to our community than they have taken out of it.

The UK Government’s lack of understanding of our situation derives from their interpretation of the “national interest” to mean the interests of the south-east of England. The UK’s nations have a range of needs, and my constituency is not well served by an immigration policy tailored to population pressures in the south-east of England. It is therefore disappointing that the UK Government refuse to budge on post-study work visas, especially as there is overwhelming support for them to be reintroduced in Scotland. Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, says that

“it simply beggars belief that the UK Government is closing the door on an opportunity for talented international people to contribute to our economy.”

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I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to our Committee’s very fine report on Scotland’s population and demography, which shows that Inverclyde is the second to last when it comes to immigration, with a projected -12% population change compared with the Scottish average. He is on to a very important point; there are regional variations in Scotland, but Scotland is way behind England when it comes to these things. I support him in saying we need to ensure we have these people coming to areas such as his.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his timely intervention and for highlighting my point.

The inevitable result of the UK Government’s irrational commitment to reducing non-EEA migration is a Scotland that is less attractive to international students. The millions of pounds that those students contribute to our higher education sector will be under threat, and we will see a reduction in the influence and soft power we currently exert throughout the world. The frustrating aspect of this self-destructive policy is that it is entirely unnecessary and avoidable. We need only look to Canada, where regionally tailored visas are resulting in a more even distribution of migrants. If Canada and other countries can introduce regional variations in immigration policy, there is no reason the UK cannot do likewise.

The UK Government say the introduction of such a scheme would overcomplicate our immigration system. As the Minister is aware, Scotland previously introduced the Fresh Talent initiative, which allowed the Scottish Parliament, in partnership with the Home Office, to create a tailored policy to combat depopulation. The Fresh Talent initiative was not perfect, nor did it solve all of Scotland’s problems, but the fact that it existed at all is proof of the UK Government’s ability to introduce regional variations in our immigration policy if there is a political will to do so. I do not agree that there are insurmountable practical barriers to implementing such a policy.

If the UK Government will not listen to Scotland’s elected representatives, perhaps they will listen to the experts in Scotland’s higher education sector. Universities Scotland said that the UK has

“one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world.”

The University of Edinburgh warned that the removal of the post-study work visa was a “damaging” change that would lead to a

“‘brain drain’ of highly skilled global talent from Scotland.”

The principals of Glasgow University, Aberdeen University and Robert Gordon University have also voiced their concerns and called for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa in Scotland. If the UK Government are intent on maintaining their current policy, they cannot claim that it truly represents all of the UK’s nations. The Scottish higher education sector and Scotland’s elected representatives have made it very clear: Scotland wants the post-study work visa to be reinstated. It is not too late for the Government to make this positive change.

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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. As a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I am delighted that we are here today to discuss our report into post-study work schemes and the Government’s response. I want to place on the record my gratitude to the Liaison Committee for selecting the report for debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is leading the debate as ably as he chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee. Having sat with him through every oral evidence session, both in this place and in Scotland, I appreciate, as he does, just how different Scotland’s immigration needs are.

Again and again, the economy seems to be the highest priority for the people of Scotland, who value quality public services. There is a real understanding of the need for a strong economy to support them. I applaud the continued efforts of the Scottish Government in that regard, but many economic levers are still outwith their grasp. Immigration policy is a key area that remains reserved to Westminster, and although there is consensus across Scotland that the return of a post-study work route would be of enormous economic benefit to Scotland, the Home Office thus far has refused to act.

Why is this type of visa so important? Around a fortnight ago, the Centre for Cities published an insightful report, “The Great British Brain Drain: Where graduates move and why”. It found that the draw of London for the UK’s highest-achieving graduates is driving a brain drain that deprives Scotland and other nations and regions of talented workers. That resonates with one of the conclusions of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report in which we noted with great concern that the outcome of the Migration Advisory Committee’s recent review of the tier 2 visa does not meet the needs of Scotland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Societal attitudes in Scotland are generally very open to immigration. One need only look at the recent EU referendum, for example. In parts of the UK, immigration seems to have been a prime motivation for how many people voted, whereas in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain, immigration rarely came up in the conversations I had with members of the public during the campaign. A much more influential factor seems to have been the economic impact of leaving the European Union and the fact that the implementation of the recommendations would further concentrate postgraduate work for non-EU international graduates in London and the south-east of England. Disappointingly, the Government failed to address that point in their response. Not only is their wilful ignorance doing Scotland a disservice, but the Centre for Cities report concluded that the brain drain to London risks damaging growth in the overall UK economy. In short, the Government are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

A return of the post-study route would allow talented students to remain and to contribute to the Scottish economy, which in turn would benefit the UK economy as a whole. There is no good reason why such a scheme could not be put in place in Scotland. It is hugely disappointing that despite repeated and sustained calls to introduce such a visa in Scotland, our universities are being excluded from the English tier 4 visa pilot that was announced in the summer. In the past, the Government have used a one-size-fits-all excuse for not allowing different immigration rules in Scotland from those in the rest of the UK, but the pilot blows that out of the water.

It is even more disappointing that UK Ministers have apparently ruled out a return of the post-study work visa in Scotland without even meeting Scottish Ministers or the cross-party steering group on the topic. The Scottish Affairs Committee concluded in February 2016 that the scrapping of the UK-wide visa scheme in 2012 had made Scotland a less attractive destination for study. The number of non-EU students remaining in Scotland after graduation fell by more than 80%. The resistance we face from the UK Government on this is unacceptable. It is damaging not only to our economy, but to our international standing.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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I am sorry, I will not take any interventions, because other Members want to speak and we want to hear from the Minister.

Scotland’s universities are world-class and a destination of choice for students and academic staff from overseas. Five of our universities are ranked among the top 200 in the world, which is not at all bad for a wee nation of 5 million-plus people. The University of the West of Scotland, which is in the process of building a new campus in my constituency, ranks among the top 5% of universities worldwide. We are punching above our weight, yet the Home Office seems insistent on trying to disadvantage us by tying our shoelaces together.

UK immigration policy poses a significant risk to universities in Scotland, which are losing out to key competitors in attracting international students. We have seen a significant fall in the number of new entrants from some countries since 2010-11. The number of Indian students has fallen by 59%, the number of Pakistani students has fallen by 38% and the number of Nigerian students has fallen by 26%. It is no coincidence that other countries are experiencing large increases in the number of international students in higher education.

In 2012-13 to 2013-14, international students in Canada increased by 11% and in Australia by 8%. In 2013-14 to 2014-15, the number of international students in higher education in the United States increased by 10%. It is likely the Government will say that there could be other factors affecting the figures, but they cannot escape the fact that the UK is becoming an increasingly hostile environment for immigrants in general. That fact, combined with the promise of a more attractive and accessible route to post-study work options in other countries, means we are losing out.

If the Government are truly committed to higher education in Scotland, they must start listening to the concerns of every main political party in Scotland, businesses, the education sector and trade unions, which are united behind a return of this visa to Scotland.

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I do not know whether my hon. Friend is as impressed as I am about what we observe in the Scottish Parliament, where every political party supports the call for a return of a post-study work scheme. Even the Minister’s colleagues in the Conservative party are working constructively to make the case. Does she agree that the calls from Scotland should not be ignored, particularly when they are cross-party and Conservative colleagues are involved?

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My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is not just on the post-study work scheme that our voices are not heard loudly and clearly. Will the Minister liaise with his Conservative colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and move this ahead? It is apparent from the Government’s response to the inquiry that there is a real unwillingness to do so. We need a change of direction and a change of attitude. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said, we need a move from ideology to pragmatism. If this Tory Government are not prepared to do that, they should hand the power to do so to the Scottish Government, who stand ready to do a much better job.

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I thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Rosindell, particularly as I had not indicated in advance that I wanted to do so. However, I believe we have time available for the debate until 3 o’clock, so I appreciate being called. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I commend the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—I hope I do not burst into flames for saying that—on the way in which he conducted the post-study work visa inquiry. I hope we do not push that to a Division. I joined the Committee after the inquiry had started, but I was on it when it considered the report, which is full and fair. The Minister and the Government should reflect seriously on it.

Since the EU referendum result, we have seen that one size no longer fits all, as we heard from the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). Post-study work visas are one area where one size certainly does not fit all, and did not in the past. We heard about the Fresh Talent initiative that the former First Minister in Scotland put in place, which was a slightly different scheme from any in the rest of the UK until it was rolled out across the whole of the UK. Of course there were problems and well-documented evidence of bogus universities bringing people to the UK to work, but such issues should have been dealt with when considering how the scheme operated, rather than by scrapping the whole scheme and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Select Committee report sets out a number of fair and reasonable suggestions that the Government could look at to keep the UK framework and foundation of the immigration system. I understand all the arguments about not fragmenting the system, and ensuring that it is fair to everyone and that Britain remains open and free across its borders, but things can be done to make the system much more responsive to the people who are here.

It is not just the Select Committee saying that. It is indeed a cross-party report that was unanimously agreed, but many of the people who gave evidence said the same thing. Sir Tim O’Shea, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, is hugely experienced in the higher education sector and was very animated, when he came to speak to the Committee, about the impact that the current situation is having on a world-class university such as Edinburgh. The reason why he was so animated was that a university in a country such as Scotland does not become one of the top 20 universities in the world unless it can attract the best talent to study at the university and unless that talent can be kept there beyond university to feed some of the information and experience that it has had back into the university sector.

This is about much more than just the nuts and bolts of allowing people to work here beyond their university career. It is about cultural enrichment. It is about people putting something back when they have taken something out. It is about the contribution that they make when they are here—£15,000 in fees alone and the annual moneys that they put into our local economies. As a former owner of a bar at the heart of Edinburgh University’s student life, I know that we could not have survived without students participating in the odd libation of an evening, or every evening in some cases. That is why it is so important that we get this right.

I was pleased when the then Minister for Immigration and the Secretary of State for Scotland came to the Select Committee and explained a little about the trials being done at Imperial College and the Universities of Bath, Oxford and Cambridge to look at how the system can be reformed. I am highly critical of the criteria used to pick those universities. I am not critical of the universities being picked—they have obviously ended up at the top of the list as a result of the criteria. I just say to the Minister, with all genuine respect, that he should look at putting a Scottish university into that list, for a number of reasons. First, it would enhance the trial, on the basis of the differentials that the Chair of the Committee has already spoken about and the embracing of the post-study work visa by Scottish universities. Also—I say this with all sincerity—it would take away the undermining of the trial by Scottish MPs complaining constantly that there is no Scottish university in the list. Let us pop one in there and enhance the trial, and if it works, a Scottish university will already be part of the trial and part of the system that may transpire from it.

We also need to examine the figure of £20,800. I remember as a student in my final year at Edinburgh University going to the careers service and not having one iota of a clue what I wanted to do when I left university, so I ended up leafing through the brochures sent in by graduate employers, looking at how much they paid on the back and applying for all the ones that paid the most. I cannot remember—it was 20 years ago—seeing many salaries that would have been the equivalent of £20,800 now. We can understand that if someone who is earning £21,000, £22,000, £23,000 or £24,000, it is quite good for them to be on the scheme, and of course they can get the visa attached to that, but there must be some flexibility about the £20,800.

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Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that if we reduced the salary threshold for overseas students, that could bring downward pressure to bear on salaries paid to British students—Scottish students—who are taking the self-same jobs?

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They are not getting those salaries, though, are they? If they were, we would be complaining about that preventing people from entering the workplace. There is always a reason for having figures. All we are asking—this is all the report said—is for the Government to look at having a little bit of flexibility on whether £20,800 is the right figure for a salary. I understand what the Minister says about differential salaries, and I agree that the average salary in Scotland would not always be lower than £20,800, given the matrix of average salaries across the UK. Perhaps removing London and the south-east from the system and then recalculating the average would be a slightly fairer system to use.

I ask the Minister to look not only at the £20,800, but at popping a Scottish university with low numbers of visa rejections into the system. I have asked the Home Office for the data, but they are covered by data protection, so I cannot see which Scottish university would be fifth on the list, or could be used, but I am sure that the Minister can go away and look at that.

A much bigger thing—this might even help the Conservative Government with the net migration figures—would be to take international students who are here for bona fide study and work out of the immigration figures. That would be a perfectly sensible thing to do. Everyone in the country, whether completely anti or completely pro-immigration, would no doubt see it as reasonable that someone coming here to study as an international student should not be part of the immigration figures. They are here to study, to learn, and, if they meet the criteria for an additional visa, to work. That sensible approach would automatically reduce the country’s immigration figures, so it would be a good news story. It would also mean that our universities were not subject to constant right-wing attacks about the immigration figures because they are bringing in students, even though those students bring an awful lot of money into the country. That money also oils the wheels of finance departments in universities so that they can deliver the education system that we all wish to have.

There are a number of ideas in the report, and a number of additional ideas for the Minister. I look forward to hearing an additional response from him, but I do plead with him to have a look at the report. It is not an attack on the Government or the immigration system. It contains sensible, reasonable and measured recommendations to try to make the system better for our constituents, but also for our wonderful, world-class higher education system in Scotland.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and his new colleagues—the fresh talent—on the Scottish Affairs Committee on their excellent work on this important issue and on bringing this debate to the House.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today. All of them, in their own eloquent way, added to the convincing—indeed, overwhelming—case for reintroducing the post-study work visa in Scotland. It is really an open-and-shut case. In short, reintroducing the visa would be good for our universities and students, for business and the economy and for Scotland—for the country as a whole.

On the first point, we have heard already how non-EU international students are of great value to Scotland’s universities and the economy. Each year, they bring in about £444 million in fees alone and an estimated £488 million in off-campus expenditure—not all, I hope, in the pubs of the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). Universities Scotland has calculated that Scotland has lost out on at least £254 million of revenue since 2012 as a result of the closure of the tier 1 post-study work visa. That figure does not include the considerable additional economic benefits from highly skilled international graduates contributing to the Scottish economy after university.

We should always remember, however, that in addition to the positive economic benefit from attracting these bright international students, they contribute immeasurably to the quality of the educational experience for all students. Domestic students and staff are exposed to different perspectives, contributing to their international experience and the development of critical thinking. International students create a more culturally diverse environment.

On the second point, hon. Members have highlighted how important retaining some international students here can be for business. They broaden the skills base and bring new ideas and links. In 2014, about 25% of all job vacancies in Scotland were hard to fill because of a shortage in available skills. That was up from 15% in 2011, and the closure of the post-study work route has certainly not helped in that regard.

On the third point, hon. Members have spoken about how Scotland as a whole benefits from a post-study work scheme, not only because of the demographic challenges that we face—an issue to which I will return shortly—but because attracting international students is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) said, key to a nation’s soft power. Scotland and the UK as a whole would benefit by gaining a vast network of global ambassadors among our international alumni.

Against that background, the very bad news is that removal of the post-study work scheme has had a substantial impact on the ability of students to remain in the United Kingdom after graduation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, last year only 7,000 international students from across the UK made the transfer from tier 4 to tier 2; in 2011 that figure was close to 50,000, so there has been an overwhelming drop of more than 80%.

The case for a post-study work scheme for Scotland is therefore a powerful one. Unfortunately, the response from the UK Government has been hugely frustrating. Their arguments just do not stack up. The Government argue that international student numbers have remained steady or even increased slightly since the post-study work scheme ended, but, as my hon. Friend said, that misses the point. There is no doubt that we could have attracted even more students with a post-study work offer that was commensurate with what our rivals in other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada offer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) pointed out, Scotland has seen a 59% decrease in the number of students from India since 2009-10. Indeed, the year after the post-study work route closed, recruitment of students from India fell by 26% in a single year. In their argument on the numbers, the Government miss another point: in Scotland, not only do we want students to come, but we want some of them to stay afterwards, and the current system has impacted on that severely.

The Government also argue, on the basis of a small and imperfect evaluation report, that the Fresh Talent scheme had flaws. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire that the scheme was a great success, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) said, no one is arguing that it was absolutely perfect. The point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South was absolutely right: we should not ditch a whole scheme on that basis but address its imperfections, improve it and make it work.

The principal argument is that a significant number of students graduating from Scottish universities then went to work in other parts of the UK. However, the key point is that the visa did not prohibit that happening. Those students were doing absolutely nothing wrong, so the answer is simple: make it a formal condition on the face of the visa that the person lives and works in Scotland. That should be no more difficult than making it a condition of a person’s visa that they study on a particular course or work for a particular employer.

The Government argue that there is already a competitive post-study work offering, but the UK post-study work offer barely exists, in that there are basically four months of additional leave after graduation in which to find a job that qualifies for tier 2. That does not remotely compare to the offerings of competitor countries in north America or Australia and New Zealand.

I could spend my whole speech discussing why tier 2 is not working well for Scotland in particular; my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire also touched on that. Our small and medium-sized enterprises are at a significant disadvantage in complying with the rules and regulations, compared with the big multinationals that make full use of them in other parts of the UK economy. Suffice it to note—as my hon. Friend did—that just 6% of tier 2 sponsors are in Scotland and Northern Ireland compared with 62% in London and the south-east, so the rules are working for London. However, it is not just Scotland that is struggling to compete—other parts of the UK are losing out as well.

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I am glad my hon. Friend picked up on the point about 62% of tier 2 sponsors being in London and the south-east. That area does not require the international students, so I am pretty certain that he would agree that we should try and make the situation equitable across the United Kingdom and incentivise people to come to Scotland. That surely reinforces the call for regional variation on these issues, so that we can get international students in Scotland and not where they are probably not required—that is, in London and the south-east.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not just about Scotland—Northern Ireland, Wales and parts of England are struggling to compete with London. The one-size-fits-all rules are set according to the economic needs of London and the south-east, so an extra couple of months, as is offered in the Government pilot scheme, will not alter the position. As other hon. Members have said, the failure to include any Scottish universities in that pilot was a slap in the face and a political own goal.

The Government are trying to defend the indefensible. I will close with two broader points. First, as has already been touched on, this is ultimately being driven by the Prime Minister’s obsession with the net migration target, which is making her pick the low-hanging fruit—in other words, international students. In fact, the current Home Secretary has tried to ditch or water down the net migration target—I think she probably knows it is a nonsensical target. We also know that both the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor think that students should be taken out of the net migration target. The Home Secretary was asked about this issue three times on Monday, but she dextrously avoided saying whether she agreed with her colleagues. Perhaps the Minister will answer instead: does he agree that, if we are to be stuck with this ludicrous net migration target, the target should exclude students? While we are at it, there is a strong case for excluding Scotland from the net migration altogether as well.

My second broader point is about what this debate means more generally for Scotland’s population. The post-study work visa is significant for Scotland but, in another sense, it is just a smaller aspect of a much bigger question about the extent to which the UK Government are prepared to consider particular immigration rules for Scotland. That question is of immense importance. As hon. Members have said, our demographic needs are different, as the Committee’s report highlighted. The challenge for Scotland has now become growing the population and retaining the proportion of our population that is of working age. If the Government are not even going to engage meaningfully on post-study work, what chance do we have of meaningful engagement on broader issues about managing Scotland’s population?

Government must come to terms with the idea that different parts of the UK can have different immigration policies. The idea is not novel—Australia and Canada do it and the Minister has often said that there is a different shortage occupation list for Scotland, so it can be done—and its time has come. An important forthcoming example is the issue of free movement. If free movement of people is not to be retained for the whole United Kingdom, the Government must quickly get working on how it can be retained for some parts of the UK, including Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said, if the Government do not get that message, then to put it mildly, they are playing with constitutional fire.

In conclusion, I know that the Minister met with Minister Alasdair Allan from the Scottish Government yesterday afternoon. I do not expect the Minister to perform a 180-degree U-turn today, welcome as that would be, but I expect and hope for more than a straightforward “No”. I expect a genuine willingness to engage, negotiate and resolve the impasse that has developed not just between the UK Government and the Scottish Government, but between the UK Government and Scotland’s universities, businesses, trade unions, students and civic society—all of Scotland, essentially.

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It is a great pleasure to appear under your chairmanship today, Mr Rosindell. I welcome the report, and not just because I was part of the Committee that drew it together back in February. I am a huge supporter of the Select Committee system. It does the House credit because, by and large, the people who serve on Select Committees park their partisanship to try to do a piece of work for the benefit of the people they are doing it for.

An exceptional thing that the Scottish Affairs Committee does is take the Committee out to the people. It goes around the country and not only takes advice from experts during sittings, but invites the public to come to play their part in discussions. Before, during and after the formal part of discussions, it engages with people who have an interest, which gives a much broader view that shapes the Committee’s reports. Our discussion today reflects both that and how seriously people take this issue in Scotland.

What is the situation in Scotland? It is a nation that needs to stem population drift. I welcome the news from the Chair of the Committee that that is being reversed to some extent—I had not picked up on that, but it really is good news. It is a nation that welcomes students and workers from across the world and that has an education system that is second to none. It is a nation that has always welcomed strangers warmly, a nation that has a cultural history without compare, a nation that offers a lifestyle and standard of living as good as anywhere on this planet, a nation that wants and needs to build up its ranks of workers, researchers, scientists and everyone else capable of driving this great country forward. Where I come from, we call that a win-win situation for all concerned.

What do we have against us? We have a Government in Westminster who act as if Scotland is some sort of colony, still under the rule of empire; a Government who are driven by fear of their own rabid Back Benchers and the xenophobes hounding them across the country; a Government who sign up to a ridiculous populist commitment to reduce immigration to below 100,000—they have to accept that they have failed repeatedly to reach their own targets—a Government who are ignoring the needs of the nation as a whole to bolster their own political status in this House.

That is all shown not only by this debate, but, for example, by the desperate plea made last week by fruit growers in the east of England. This year they have seen a 14% drop in the number of applicants to come for the fruit-picking season from eastern Europe. The fear is that it will only get worse and could lead to the ridiculous situation of produce being left to rot in the fields of England and the whole country, all because of the attitude the Government have taken towards immigration.

Everything is a direct result of that policy, with the blurring of lines between asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants in the mind of far too many in this country, and we in this House have allowed that to happen—all those people being lumped together into one group is a negative for this country. Anything that can be done to drive down the immigration numbers to reach the Government’s ridiculous targets is being done by our civil servants on behalf of the Government.

The Government are paralysed by the policy, and sensible discussions or suggestions such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald)—that students are taken out of the immigration numbers—the Government dare not do. They dare not be seen as backsliding, because they know they will be attacked by people from the far right. Instead of having the bottle to stand up and take them on, saying, “It’s the right thing to do because it’s what the people of this country need,” the Government are far too worried about the electoral consequences.

Everyone in this House will have seen immigration cases in their own case loads in recent months and years, with people saying that they, their family or dependants are not being allowed access to this country, whereas in the past they would have been allowed in on exactly the same applications. More and more obstacles are being put in the way of people simply as a mechanism to get the numbers down to a ridiculous target. If the Government were really serious about controlling immigration, they would start by putting real pressure on exploitative employers.

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The hon. Gentleman was a very valued member of the Scottish Affairs Committee. I must say, on behalf of the Committee, that we miss him and we are very grateful for his remarks today. Does he share my concern with where we are going with all this? Currently, EU students can come to UK and Scottish universities uninhibited by any immigration rules. Maybe we will hear from the Minister himself, but does the hon. Gentleman share my fear that EU students might be treated similarly to non-EU international students? Will they also be expected to fall into all these immigration tests?

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I thank the Chair of the Committee for his kind words. He is absolutely right. It is clear that the tone that is now set in this country is one of saying, “We don’t want strangers anymore.” We are not welcoming and that is abhorrent for people. I know that the Scottish people, people from my part of the country, and certainly people from where the Minister is from are not like that. We are warm, welcoming people. Virtually all of us who live on this island, somewhere down the line, are immigrants to this place. Hardly any of us can go back and say, “I’ve been here since the stone age,” and that has created a country and a nation that is at ease with itself, and that has welcomed and led the world in so many ways, but we are becoming narrow-minded and not the sort of people we want to be. I accept that people from around Europe will look at us and say, “Why would I go there? I should go somewhere else where I’ll be made to feel welcome.” It is a real worry.

Getting back to where I was, if the Government are really serious, they would be putting the pressure where it belongs and disincentivising exploitative employers who are abusing workers they bring to this country; properly policing the implementation of the national minimum wage; and ensuring that health and safety legislation was properly and fully adhered to on behalf of the immigrant workforce. If they were really serious, they would prevent immigrant workers being forced to live in conditions that would have shamed the hostels used in the apartheid days in South Africa, and stop employers using bonds to tie unhappy workers into contracts that are not worth the paper that, quite often, they are not even written on. Disincentivising exploitative employers would do more to reduce immigration numbers in this nation than any of the ridiculous schemes being promised so far that are so clearly failing.

The report should be a wake-up call for the Government. They should drop this sham of a policy and look instead at the real needs of the nation, at what has been said and at what this is about—the future of the country and the future of Scotland, which needs people to come in for the betterment of us all. Failure to do so is a detriment to us all. This report was done in good faith and it expresses the real needs of Scotland. It deserves a much better response than it has had so far.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. If I may, I will leave a couple of minutes at the end for the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who moved the motion, to respond. I congratulate him on securing the debate and I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated on their valuable contributions to a spirited debate. Indeed, such has been the turnout for the Scottish National party, it has almost been like a scene from “Braveheart”. I welcome the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. During my short time as Immigration Minister, I have faced seven Members of the Labour party across the Dispatch Box, and I have had seven slightly different takes on what Labour’s immigration policy might be. I hope we can get some clarity at some point.

It would be careless of me not to begin with the fact that the Scottish people knew, when they voted in the Scottish independence referendum, that issues such as immigration and defence were not devolved matters. Therefore, the majority agreed that that should continue to be the situation. Incidentally, despite what the shadow Secretary of State said about my party’s attitude to Scotland, I want to put on the record that Scotland, like Yorkshire, is an important part of our country and that use of the word “colony” is really not appropriate. Perhaps the people in Scotland are slightly more generous than people from Yorkshire, but both are vital parts of our country. More Scots chose to vote Conservative than Labour in the last Scottish election. Indeed, many would say that Labour has become irrelevant in Scotland and that only the Conservatives are seen as offering a real choice for our people north of the border.

I am pleased to say that, on some key issues, there are no differences between any of us, whichever side of the border we are on. International students make an important contribution to UK educational institutions not just because of the income they bring, but because of the wider perspective they contribute and the lasting links they forge with this country. Let me be clear: there is no limit on the number of genuine international students who can come to study in the United Kingdom, and we have no intention of imposing any limit or cap. I hope that all hon. Members will acknowledge and welcome that fact. Let me also be clear about what that means in practice. The Government have taken seriously our duty to clear up the mess we inherited from the previous Government, including stopping more than 900 bogus institutions bringing in international students, and the number of genuine international higher education students has risen. Indeed, since 2010, the number of international students at Scottish universities has increased by 14%. I wish that those who seem to trade in doom and gloom would celebrate that fact and help the excellent universities in Scotland to flourish.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) raised a point about numbers falling. I point out that non-EU enrolments at Scotland’s Russell Group universities have increased. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the University of Edinburgh’s numbers were up by 9%, and the University of Glasgow’s were up by 32%. That is a great achievement by some of our great institutions.

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The point here is not a comparison between where we are now and where we were a few years back. It is about where we are now and where we could have been if we still had the post-study work visa. Universities Scotland has highlighted the fact that it has lost out on hundreds of millions of pounds of income, so we would have had more international students. That is an appropriate comparison and that is what the Minister has to address.

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The hon. Gentleman continually makes such points, but we must always bear in mind that many of those numbers are people who did not come here to study at all in some cases. They enrolled in bogus colleges intending not to study, but merely to take low-skilled jobs as a way of getting into the country and, in some cases, achieving residency in due course.

Let me turn to the issue of post-study work in Scotland, dealing first with the Fresh Talent—Working in Scotland scheme, which closed in 2008 because of its manifest limitations. An evidence review of the Fresh Talent scheme published by Scottish Government Social Research in 2008 refers to analysis of in-country applications conducted by the Border and Immigration Agency between June and August 2007, showing that a significant proportion of respondents were not in the types of job they would have liked to be in, with about four in 10 stating that their employment was not linked to their career choice, and more than half saying that it was not even appropriate to their level of education.

The Government closed the tier 1 post-study work route in April 2012. The route granted free access to the UK labour market for two years to international students who graduated in the UK. Too many individuals in the route were unemployed or in low-skilled work, and too many were using the student route as a means to work in the United Kingdom without any intention to study. We also saw a large number of fraudulent applications, which undermined our work routes and damaged the reputation of our education system. However, the closure of the two schemes does not mean that the United Kingdom fails to provide an attractive offer for international graduates of our universities. We have a generous offer for international students graduating from UK universities, which contains important safeguards to protect against abuse, the undermining of our work migration routes, and students being exploited by being used in low-skilled work or remaining in the United Kingdom unemployed.

With our current post-study provisions, the number of international students switching from tier 4 into tier 2 in the UK has been increasing. In 2015, the number was more than 6,000—up from around 5,500 grants in 2014, and around 4,000 grants in 2013. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made the allegation that we will “boot them out”. That is not the case. He talked about people having to find a job in four months, which is also not the case. They can start looking for a job before they finish their course, and many participate in the famous milk round, in which employers go around universities before exams and graduation have been completed. The important point is that there is no limit, and never has been, on the number of international graduates of UK universities who can move into skilled jobs in the UK workforce. There is no limit on the number of tier 4 students who can move into tier 2 jobs. Students moving into skilled jobs do not count against the annual tier 2 general limit.

Another point was on students being able to stay for up to two or four months before switching. Four visa categories are available to non-European economic area graduates of UK universities who wish to remain in the UK to work. First, those with an offer of a graduate-level job that pays an appropriate salary may take sponsored employment through tier 2. Secondly, those who have been identified by their higher education institution or by UK Trade & Investment can stay on for up to two years to develop their businesses in the UK under the tier 1 graduate entrepreneur category. Thirdly, graduates wishing to undertake a period of professional training or a corporate internship related to their qualifications can do so under tier 5. Lastly, PhD students can stay in the UK for an extra year under the tier 4 doctorate extension scheme to look for work or to start their own business.

We need to be clear that this debate is not about skilled work or ensuring that graduate-level skills are available to Scotland. That is already provided for. The Scottish National party is arguing for the right for international graduates to stay in this country to work in low-skilled and unskilled jobs. I fail to see how that benefits the economy of any part of the United Kingdom.

Although I recognise and welcome the work in Scotland to reduce unemployment rates—I note that there are still 129,000 unemployed people in Scotland—as in other parts of our country, the unemployment rate has fallen in recent years. Many of those people may already have the skills, or could acquire the skills, to take up jobs that do not require graduate training.

The other argument advanced by the SNP is that not having post-study work schemes makes the UK education sector less competitive than all our key international competitors. Perhaps we should look at the facts. An international student graduating from a UK university can stay in this country for at least two months after graduating, during which they can do whatever they like, including both working and looking for tier 2 employment that would allow them to stay on. If they have undertaken a course lasting more than a year, which covers the majority of international students in the UK, they can remain for four months.

The only country with a greater number of international students than the UK is the United States of America. In the United States international graduates, other than those undertaking work directly relevant to their degree, must leave the country within 60 days of completing their programme. In passing, I note that Canadian study permits become invalid 90 days after the conclusion of a study programme, which again is less generous than the position that applies to most international students in the UK. I hope we will not hear any more rhetoric about the UK’s uncompetitiveness on international students.

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The Minister is talking about the student visa itself. The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all have post-study work offerings that allow people to switch without, say, salary thresholds for 12 months or, in one case, 24 months. The Minister is not making a fair comparison.

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I have mentioned the four routes that graduates can take, but I make it clear that coming to the UK to study and obtain a degree is not a way into low-skilled work or unemployment. The vast majority of students come to the UK to study and then go back to contribute to their country’s economy. Indeed, on the statistics, those students do not contribute to net migration. If a person comes here to study and leaves at the end of their course, they do not contribute to net migration.

The hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) spoke of the tier 4 visa pilot. In recent months, some Scottish National party Members seem to have fixated on the claim that Scottish universities have somehow been deliberately and consciously excluded from the tier 4 visa pilot. The four universities chosen were selected objectively, with no prejudice—indeed, if there were prejudice, I suspect we would have had one in Yorkshire—and, as a result, the pilot includes the top four institutions based on their consistently low levels of visa refusals. There was no agenda to limit those involved to universities in any region of the UK.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) is keen on putting words in my mouth, and I am not saying that all institutions not currently involved in the pilot have a poor record of immigration compliance. There are plenty of excellent institutions throughout the UK, including in Scotland. However, the four institutions participating in the pilot have the best record, which is why they have been chosen. We have deliberately kept it small scale, and I assure hon. Members that it will be properly evaluated. Should the pilot prove a success, it will be rolled out more widely—including, I hope, to universities in Scotland.

Finally, the Government continue to engage widely with the further and higher education sectors. Only yesterday, as has been mentioned, I met Dr Alasdair Allan, the Scottish Government’s Minister for International Development and Europe, to discuss these points.

I have time to touch on one or two other points. It was claimed that the number of Indian students coming to the UK has fallen by half, which should be viewed in the context of the clampdown on abuse. We issue more tier 4 visas to students from India than to students from any other country except China and the United States. The proportion of Indian students in the UK who are studying at a university has increased from some 50% in 2010 to some 90% in 2015. The 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, some 90% of Indian students who applied for a tier 4 visa were issued one, which is up from 86% in 2014 and 83% in 2013. The Indian student grant rate is higher than in our competitor countries, and in quarter 3 of 2016 there was a 6% increase in the number of tier 4 visas issued to Indian students compared with 2015.

As anticipated, this has been a lively debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I reiterate that genuine students are welcome, and will continue to be welcome, in the United Kingdom. The UK has an enviable reputation as the home of world-class educational institutions, and the Government will continue to help them to ensure that they can continue bringing in the best and brightest students from across the globe to all parts of the UK, particularly Scotland.

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Thank you for the opportunity to say a few quick words at the end of what has been an excellent debate, Mr Rosindell. I thank everyone who has helped out and participated in this important inquiry for the Scottish Affairs Committee. In the new Committee’s very early days, we were requested to look at these issues.

I take it from the Minister that that will be a no, then. We have made a sustained case, and it is not just the Scottish National party. Every sector in Scotland—higher education, the trade unions, representatives of business organisations and the Minister’s colleagues in the Scottish Parliament—is saying that post-study work schemes are required. He fails to recognise what post-study work schemes offer. It is not about trying to find unskilled employment, and there would be conditions on the type of employment that people would be expected to get. It is about giving people the opportunity to find and secure employment.

Nobody has told us that four months is adequate to secure such employment, particularly for £20,800. We suggested a few modest tweaks that could have helped to address the situation. I listened, but the Minister does not sound amenable to our proposals. Have a look at the regional cap for Scotland. It is a privilege that international students want to come to Scotland to study and that some decide to make Scotland their home. Give them a chance to find meaningful, constructive employment in Scotland that will enhance their community and develop our economy.

I will end with the words of Professor Diamond, who spoke of what happens when we have international students who value their experience here. They enrich our campuses and allow indigenous Scottish students to be educated in their company. They are also fantastic ambassadors when they go back to their country. If they have a positive experience of Scotland, it is carried for years and generations, resulting in goodwill towards our nation in the future. All we want is a chance for people who have chosen to come to Scotland to have an opportunity to find meaningful employment and to make a significant contribution. Scotland is different in our immigration and demographic requirements. We have a different set of population issues and challenges, and we need assistance in trying to address them. I hope the Government think once again about the Committee’s very modest demands.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Fourth Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee of Session 2015-16, Post-study work schemes, HC 593, and the Government response, HC 787.