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International Students: Contribution to the UK

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of international students to the UK.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer, and to see so many colleagues here today.

The contribution that international students make to our domestic society and economy is a subject close to my heart. I was an international student and did my Erasmus year at Heidelberg University, and I did a master’s at the College of Europe in Warsaw. Prior to that, I studied in Scotland’s near abroad—Yorkshire—at Leeds University, and at Nottingham Law School. We must not lose sight of the important fact that so many of the world’s best and brightest are willing to come to our countries and work with us towards the light of science.

I declare an interest as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary university group. It is a pleasure to see so many good colleagues from the group present, and I look forward to the discussion. I am grateful to a number of organisations for the briefs that we have had prior to the debate, particularly Stirling University in my constituency, Forth Valley College, Universities Scotland, Universities UK, the Russell Group, Imperial College London and UCAS. I refer colleagues to the House of Commons Library brief, which provides a really good state of play on where things are and a very helpful overview of the situation.

I stress that this is a good news story. Since I came into the House of Commons in 2019, I hope it has been clear that I do not do point scoring. I am here to work towards a common ambition: I want to see the UK do well. Global Britain is not the Scottish National party’s project. I believe that Scotland’s best future is as an independent state back in the European Union, and we will have a referendum about that in due course—it is not for today. In the meantime, it is important for me to say to colleagues that I do not wish global Britain harm. If I were trying to undermine global Britain, I would cut the international aid budget, defund the BBC World Service, shut down British Council organisations worldwide and jeopardise our contacts with the European Union. All those things are happening under the Government right now, and I ask the Minister, whom I do not regard as part of the problem, to urge his colleagues to stop them.

This is a success story and a good news story. The contribution that international students make to Scotland and the UK is significant, but it is a success story that cannot be taken for granted. Scotland and the UK have a huge interest in this issue, although Scotland’s interest is disproportionate. In 2020-21, 24.1% of university enrolments in Scotland came from outwith the UK, compared with 22.2% in England, 21.3% in Northern Ireland, and 14.9% in Wales. All the home nations have a significant interest in retaining and attracting international students, but Scotland has a disproportionate interest in doing so. We have an interest in the UK Government’s policies, particularly on immigration, that threaten progress on this matter, which is surely in all our interests.

In 2020-21, we had 5,000 international students based at Stirling University—30% of the campus-based student population. UK-wide, the number is obviously bigger, with 605,100 international students at various higher education institutions across all our constituencies and countries. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of the world’s best and brightest, who have paid us the supreme compliment of coming to our home to work with us. I am conscious that a number are watching, and I say to them, “You are welcome here. You are welcome in our society. You enrich our society by your presence, and you enrich the institution that you are committed to. You are working with us towards a global science.”

I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors at Manchester Metropolitan University. I agree with much of what the hon. Member is saying, except about independence for Scotland. I believe we are stronger together.

I endorse the hon. Member’s point about the value that is added by international students, particularly in commuter universities such as Manchester Metropolitan. Our students may have less opportunity to travel abroad because of caring and other responsibilities, and being able to mix with international students who come to our country to study gives them an important connection to the global economy into which they will graduate.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, except for the part about independence, which we will probably come back to at some point. I strongly agree with her, and I pay tribute to her for the power of work she has done in the all-party parliamentary universities group.

I thank the international students who so enrich our communities and institutions by their presence—and that is before we get on to the economics. It is the dismal science, but the economic impact is considerable. To be clear with colleagues, that is not my starting point; I do not regard universities as money-making widget factories. Universities are seats of learning, seats of exchange and seats of research. They form a globally interconnected network of the exchange of people, ideas and knowledge.

There are only two things that drive human progress—science and art—and universities have a crucial role to play in that. It was Isaac Asimov who said:

“There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.”

Science is global. Universities are global by their very nature, and the exchange of students, people and ideas is fundamental to what they do. However, I am Scottish, and the money does not hurt.

The contribution of international students is significant. We have calculated that international students contribute £66.4 million net to the Stirling economy. For the whole of Scotland, their contribution is £1.94 billion net, and for the UK economy, a single cohort of international students contributes £25.9 billion net. At a time of straitened budgets and economic turbulence, we need to safeguard that progress, not undermine it either deliberately or by accident.

I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up on two particular points about the Government’s rhetoric, which risks undermining progress, and about EU relations, in which there is huge opportunity that the Government could unlock by changing course.

The comments by the Home Secretary and various other members of the Government about limiting international students are wrong politically, societally and economically. Limiting international students would be a “hammer blow”. Those are not my words, but those of Vivienne Stern, the chief executive of Universities UK. I will ask the Minister some questions from Universities UK that I think it is worth putting on the record—I appreciate that I am blindsiding him slightly, so I will happily accept a letter after the debate.

What assessments have the UK Government made of the economic cost—including the loss of tuition-fee income, living cost expenditure and knock-on expenditure —of restricting the number of international students and their dependants entering the UK’s world-leading university sector? Are the Government committed to retaining the graduate visa route established in 2021? That fact that it is under threat is utterly wrongheaded, but it has been called into question by some senior people, so I would be very grateful for reassurance that it is safe. Are the Government committed to the successful international strategy outlined in 2019, including the target to host 600,000 international students, which has since been achieved, and to bring in £35 billion of export income every year by 2030?

Before turning to EU links, I declare an interest: I was a Member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2019, and as a member of its Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, I helped draft some of the regulations on Horizon Europe and on student and educational exchanges, so this matter is close to my heart. Scotland and the UK are research-intensive places, and Scottish and UK involvement in the EU frameworks for this stuff is a win-win-win for everybody. I regret deeply that the UK has left the European Union, but I am not here to fight old battles. There are ways of interacting with what is going on in the EU that stop short of EU membership.

I was in Brussels recently and in Berlin just the other week. There is a real willingness on the part of our European friends to see the UK play a full part in institutions and networks such as Horizon Europe, Erasmus+, Copernicus and Euratom. As I have said, it is a win-win-win to be part of those projects, but a chill is under way: in Erasmus, there has been a huge reduction in the number of EU nationals applying to UK institutions, which is deeply regrettable.

On 22 July, the EU announced the cancellation of 115 grants for UK-based scientists because they were not part of the reference networks or frameworks. There is a big prize here: Horizon Europe is worth €95.5 billion, and that money could—but does not—work towards not just the EU’s science but our own. The single biggest thing blocking progress on all those fronts, and that holds back our universities and academics, is the lack of trust between the UK Government and the EU.

That lack of trust has crystallised around the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. The fact that the UK introduced that Bill, which has been passed by the House of Commons and is now in the other place, calls into question the UK’s good faith on all of this stuff. The EU will not allow us an ad hoc, legally undefined membership when the UK is clearly willing to rip up legal order, as it has done with the Bill.

Let us scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. That would unlock progress on all these real-world opportunities and give our university sector and our students an advantage. There is a huge prize to be won. Global Britain is not part of the SNP’s project, but academic exchange is. We very much want to be part of the exchange of ideas and people, and I want to see the UK play a full part in that. I am grateful for the discussion, and I look forward to questions and comments, and, above all, to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer, and to welcome the Minister to his position; his is probably one of the better appointments made recently. I am pleased to contribute to the debate as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international students, a role that I share with Lord Bilimoria, the former president of the CBI. An important part of our role is celebrating the contribution of international students, so I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for securing the debate and for many of the points and questions he raised.

My constituency of Sheffield Central—as you well know, Mr Stringer, as one of our graduates—has more students than any other constituency. We know the huge value of international students, but it is important that we do not stop the discussion at their contribution to the local economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, they also enrich the learning experience of UK students—what an extraordinary opportunity for UK students to study alongside students from so many other countries and continents, all providing their input to classroom discussions. In addition, they enhance the cultural vitality of our city, and they provide us with ambassadors for Sheffield when they move on and continue their lives in business, politics and other areas.

Recognising those benefits, our APPG makes the case for policies that encourage and support the recruitment of international students. It seems obvious that we would want to do that, but that has not been the case. Back in 2010, when David Cameron was elected with a pledge to reduce immigration to tens of thousands, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), went for easy wins on immigration numbers—despite the damage to the UK—by cutting the number of international students, removing the graduate visa route and putting in place other barriers. That was celebrated by our competitors in Australia, Canada and the US. I remember hosting an event with the former Australian higher education Minister, who began by saying, “I would like to congratulate your Home Secretary. Without her efforts, we wouldn’t be doing so well in recruiting international students to Australia.”

With strong, genuine cross-party support, the APPG campaigned for seven years for change, and in 2018 we produced our inquiry report, “A Sustainable Future for International Students in the UK”. I am pleased that our two main recommendations—to set an ambitious target for growth of international student numbers and to offer a new post-study work route—were embraced by the Government in their 2019 international education strategy, which set

“an ambition to increase the value of our education exports to £35 billion per year, and to increase the number of international higher education students hosted in the UK to 600,000 per year, both by 2030.”

All of us on both sides of the House celebrated the Government’s ambition, and I thought that was the end of the argument—after seven long years, we had finally convinced people—but recent comments by the new Home Secretary provoked an awful feeling of déjà vu. Lessons learned have been forgotten; instead of tackling the real issues facing the Home Office—passport delays, visa delays, the asylum backlog, the failure to end dangerous channel crossings—the Home Secretary has turned to the distraction technique employed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead.

Recent rhetoric has included tired tropes about overstaying and suggested the illegitimate use of visas. That has caused enormous offence in India, one of our most crucial markets not just for growing international student numbers, but for reducing our dependence on China, which dominates the market at the moment. It will also impact the Government’s attempts to secure a trade deal with India. If the Home Secretary tells international students that they cannot bring their families to the UK, as she seems to be suggesting, they will simply turn to one of the many countries that will say, “You’re welcome here.”

The problem is not only the policies but the rhetoric, which is beginning to undo the work that many of us who support the cause of international students have done to repair the damage that the Government caused. After so many years of international students being told that they are not welcome here, we have all come together, as the hon. Member for Stirling said, singing one song: “You are very welcome here.” The Home Secretary’s recent rhetoric undermines those efforts.

Although this is not just an economic argument, research from the Higher Education Policy Institute last year shows that international students bring nearly £30 billion a year to the UK economy, supporting jobs and businesses across the country. They play an important role in our universities and in enriching our campuses, and they bolster Britain’s place in the world at a time when we need it.

Locally, an economic impact assessment commissioned by the University of Sheffield, based on 2018-19 data, found that overseas students at the university—it is just one of our two universities—support £184 million gross value added and just over 3,000 jobs in the Sheffield city region. That is more than we employ in the steel industry in Sheffield. Those jobs are across a swathe of industries, from transport to hospitality, food and retail.

More recently, “The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy,” published by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Universities UK International, analysed the 2018-19 international cohort. I should probably declare an interest, because it found that Sheffield Central remains the top parliamentary constituency for net economic benefit. Every person in Sheffield and its surrounding area is £2,520 better off on average because of international students. They are hugely important for the university’s financial stability and for the sub-regional economy. That is the critical point.

We should recognise that universities are a unique public asset. They are distributed around all the regions and nations of the United Kingdom; the economic benefit is not concentrated in London and the south-east. Obviously, there is a significant number of fine institutions down here, but the benefit is shared around the country. If the Government are serious about their levelling-up agenda—obviously, we doubt they are—universities are a critical driver of economic activity all over the country. At a time when the Government claim to be focused on growth, it is utterly incoherent to reduce the benefits from one of our strongest exports—higher education.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the wider benefits to local and regional economies. Part of the economic contribution comes from our universities’ capacity for research. Does he share my concern that if the number of international students declines, the contribution they make to subsidising the cost of research in universities will also decline, and that will make our regional economies and our national economy poorer?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. That is absolutely correct, and it complements what the hon. Member for Stirling said about the way our research base is threatened outside Horizon Europe.

Frankly, the UK needs all the help it can get on the international stage. Given that the Government cannot decide whether it is worth turning up to key global events such as COP and are trashing our reputation by claiming that the jury is out on whether our key partners and neighbours are friend or foe, we cannot afford further mishaps. The QS World University Rankings assess universities on six key indicators, one of which is the international student and international faculty ratio. A highly international university demonstrates the ability to attract quality students and staff from around the world, and implies a highly global outlook and diversity of culture, knowledge and thought. It makes us more competitive. It is therefore hugely important that we maintain those numbers.

As for soft power, when I was campaigning for change I met the ambassador from one of our important allies in the far east, an important economic partner. We were talking about these issues and he said, “Paul, do you realise that three quarters of our Cabinet were educated at UK universities?” That is soft power that the rest of the world would die for, and it is hugely important. The 2022 HEPI soft power index shows the benefit of international students, with 55 world leaders having taken advantage of UK higher education.

I hope the new Minister will take on board these arguments and, with his colleagues in the Department for Education, do all he can to make the case to colleagues in the Home Office that we do not want to go through this again. Let us not have that whole seven years of making the mistake, trawling back from it, and then setting an ambition to do what has been undone by such negative policies.

I hope the Minister will not only answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Stirling, but reflect on the implications for our universities, our regional economies and our international standing if we go back on the Government’s own ambition, set out in the international education strategy.

I intend to call the SNP spokesperson at 5.10 pm at the latest. If Members wish to speak, whether or not they have written to Mr Speaker, will they stand to indicate that? That is a help to the Chair.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who genuinely brings knowledge to these debates, not just because he represents a university town but because he knows his subject. I want to put that on the record and thank him for it. It is also nice to see the Minister in his place. We have had a long friendship in this House, and it is not before time that he has been elevated to Minister. I am pleased to see him as a Minister for a subject in which he has a deep interest. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on bringing the debate forward. For the record—I am sure he knew I would say this, but I have to say it—I disagree intensely with him on one matter that he referred to. He said that we should do away with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. No, no—we should get the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill put through this House. Then we can be equal to everybody else in the United Kingdom—those in Wales, Scotland and the rest of the UK mainland. It is not a matter of either/or. I want to speak about international students, the subject of the debate, but I also want to say very clearly that Northern Ireland MPs are anxious to see the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill go through as it is. Then we can all have the same level of representation and the same Britishness that we all love to have.

I am proud to hail from Northern Ireland. Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster, as well as our other higher education institutions, are world class and attract a large number of international students. Northern Ireland has a sterling reputation for providing a high-class education. The result of that is a highly skilled education system, which others wish to feed from. Since the peace process and the cessation of troubles, we have seen a dramatic increase in international students coming to our shores, an unsurprising number of whom wish to stay on. We have many students who come to Northern Ireland, get good jobs, and stay there. How could they not, with all that we have to offer?

The latest statistics show that of the 66,245 students enrolled in Northern Ireland’s higher education institutions in 2021, 74% were from Northern Ireland, 5% from GB, 3% from the Republic of Ireland, 1% from EU countries and 17% from non-EU countries. They also suggest that international students from outside the EU are worth about £102,000 each to the UK economy for the duration of their study. That is not something we can ignore. There is a financial impact, and we want to continue to gain from it. Non-EU students typically pay much higher tuition fees than local, EU or UK students: they can pay between £15,000 and £30,000 a year for courses in Northern Ireland. We have a thriving higher education sector, which we wish to see retained and built upon.

Analysis suggests that international students delivered a net benefit of almost £26 billion to the UK in 2018-19. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central referred to, this is a market that should clearly be encouraged, especially at our two local universities, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University. International students account for about £49 million of those universities’ income through fees and grants—a substantial amount of money for us in Northern Ireland—showing the importance of us having education at that level in Northern Ireland. The accounts of Queen’s University Belfast show that international students generated some £43.8 million in fees and grants in 2019-20, while Ulster University received just under £5.1 million in overseas student fees in the same period.

When we have education debates in this place and are talking about universities, I often refer to the partnerships that Queen’s University Belfast in particular has with big business, finding cures for illnesses across the world such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Those partnerships are incredible, and international students are part of making them happen. There have been a great many success stories over the past few years, and Queen’s University plays a critical part in those, as do other universities across the United Kingdom.

The students in Northern Ireland come from 135 different countries and are certainly a welcome addition. I am very pleased to see them coming, and I would like to build on that for us back home. I believe more should be done to encourage others like them to see the potential of study in Northern Ireland, with low rent, low-cost food—the past couple of months might not suggest that, but the costs are low compared with some places—and friendly locals with a warm and welcoming culture. I believe we are missing a trick by not promoting that more robustly. I think that, as other hon. Members have rightly said, we could do that for the whole United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland boasts world-class research facilities at Queen’s University and Ulster University, with both universities ranking in the top 10 across the UK for bioscience research. I referred to some of their research on cures for the ailments that plague us, not just in this United Kingdom but across the world. Their researchers are recognised as being at the forefront of technology, health data analytics, statistics, modelling, simulation and the use of artificial intelligence, which I know the Government here are keen to promote as well. Those are the good things that universities do, quite apart from their cultural value. The hon. Member for Stirling referred to the fact that when students come here, they bring much to this great United Kingdom culturally, individually, socially and emotionally. That is something we should cherish and try to build upon.

Northern Ireland has several unique advantages for medical research and clinical trials, with a small population of just under 2 million, an integrated health and social care system, and the electronic care record, which makes it possible to access digital health from cradle to grave. We have such a technological advantage in Northern Ireland, given our universities and the research they are involved with to try to find cures. We have much to offer, and now it is on us to promote that effectively.

I know the Minister always seeks to give us answers, so let me ask him whether, in the short time he has been in post, he has had any discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to secure funds to promote our UK-wide education system globally. If he has not had those discussions yet, I know he will. We have a great education system in Northern Ireland. I want to see it grow and thrive, and I believe this debate gives us an opportunity to help it do just that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to catch your eye slightly spontaneously—it is much appreciated. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on securing this important and timely debate. I did not necessarily need to speak, because I basically agreed with every single word that he said.

Like the other speakers, I am proud to represent a university constituency, and the University of Glasgow has an incredibly long and proud international history. I do not mean that as a cliché—it was literally founded by a papal bull in 1451, so it has a very long history indeed, and it is proud of its international outreach since that time.

One of the outstanding points in its history occurred in 1837 when it awarded James McCune Smith his medical doctorate. He was the first African-American to be awarded a medical degree, and went back to the United States, where he practised medicine and pharmacy and was an absolute pioneer and champion of the anti-slavery and equal rights movements in those days. Today, the James McCune Smith learning hub bears his name and sits proudly on University Avenue in the west end of Glasgow. It is testament not just to his achievements and to the university’s achievements over all the years, but to the very presence of the international students in such great numbers that have made the institution what it is today—as many of 14,000 of them, if I am reading the statistics correctly, across undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research courses. They come from dozens and dozens of countries; as far as I can tell, practically every country in the world is represented by at least a handful of students on the campus and in our city, and that is testament to all the points that have been made by Members today. That is true of the city as a whole.

I am proud to represent the University of Glasgow. I am also proud to be a graduate of the University of Strathclyde, and everything that I say about what international students bring to the city and the country applies equally to the University of Strathclyde, to Glasgow Caledonian University, to Glasgow School of Art, to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and to the many further education institutions that the city and the country are so rightly proud of. As I say, that impact is visible across the city as a whole, in the shops, in the catering outlets and in the visible presence of the cultural festivals that the student cohorts bring to the city. It is present and visible in the way in which the campuses themselves have been shaped, with the incredible new facilities provided in the new buildings, many of which are available for use by the public as a whole, contributing to the society and economy of the communities to which the universities belong in exactly the way that we have heard.

The presence of international students, as other Members have said, raises ambitions and standards in the institutions and in the communities as whole. That is not without its challenges. Anyone, particularly students trying to find accommodation in Glasgow over the last few months, will be able to testify to that, and that is true of other cities as well. However, that speaks to the importance of creating a welcoming environment and the importance of having the infrastructure in place to support the presence of so many students. A big part of that involves providing certainty about numbers and certainty of access.

That starts to speak to the UK Government’s policies on funding for institutions, and particularly on access to visas and country entry requirements. It is not just about study visas, but about post-study work visas. This is not purely transactional, and students should not just come for three or four years, then leave again, but can be inspired to settle, make their home here and continue to contribute to our economy and society.

Sadly—and I suspect anyone with a university in their constituency will find this— the casework continues to suggest that is not always the case. I remember one of the very first constituents who came to see me in 2015 was literally a rocket scientist and could not get a visa to work here. In the end, I think we managed to make some kind of progress, but the people we want to attract are banging their head against the wall of the universe of the UK Government’s hostile environment policy. This is where, as with so much of the new Government’s agenda, the reality of their stated ambition is going to have to confront the practice of what they are trying to input because, if they really do want growth and a global Britain, putting up barriers to people coming here is contradictory to both of those things. It will not achieve either the outcome that they want to see or the outcome that those of us who believe in multiculturalism and internationalism want to produce: a growing and diverse society.

The main Chamber is currently discussing the concept of independence, and Government Members—and indeed some Opposition Members—want to make the case for the strength of the Union. However, limiting and undermining the ability of further and higher education institutions to attract students from all around the world is not an argument in favour of the Union. That does not speak to the strength of the UK.

Again, if strengthening the Union is one of this Government’s priorities, they need to look at their policies in these areas. I echo all of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and, indeed, much of what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. I pay tribute, once again, to the incredible community at the University of Glasgow. Long may that internationalism—that outreach to the world and that bringing of the world to our fantastically diverse city—continue.

I would just say, for the future, it really does help the Chair to allocate time if hon. Members stand if they want to make a contribution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I take on board your advice about making use of the time and ensuring that the Chair is aware in advance. However, since we have almost four minutes spare—you indicated that the Front Benchers would start speaking at 5.10 pm—this is an opportunity for me, on behalf of the universities in our city of Manchester, of which we are immensely proud, and the universities right around the country, to endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) in opening this debate.

Our universities are economic, social and intellectual powerhouses in cities and communities up and down our country. We should welcome the diverse ideas, thinking and vision that international students contribute. However, we also know that the sector faces financial challenges. In England, where university student fees for UK students have been effectively reduced in real terms as a result of freezing, the financial contribution from international students becomes all the more important to support both the teaching of UK and international students and the vital research work of our universities.

Of course, the research programmes carried out in universities also help to power our economic success. The financial contribution that international students make, both directly, to the financial stability and success of higher education institutions, and indirectly, to the greater success of our whole economy, cannot be overestimated.

I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said about the importance of soft power and the relationships that are established when international students come to this country to study, and indeed when international academics come here to teach and research with UK colleagues. The influence, relationships, and opportunities for using soft power that that creates for this country is an immense asset to us. We should recognise and celebrate the contribution of international students to that.

Mr Stringer, I very much welcome this afternoon’s debate and I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to it. I know that I speak for university vice-chancellors up and down the country when I say that we want to welcome international students to our higher education institutions. I also know that I speak for communities that are home to universities up and down the country when I say that we are delighted to welcome our international friends into our communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for securing this debate. It is unusual that we have so much consensus in a debate. Mind you, we do not have any speakers on the Government’s side other than the Minister. I hope that we get some consensus from him as well.

I do not have a university in my constituency, but I do have a huge number of international students living there. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has pointed out that, in Glasgow, as well as the University of Glasgow, we have the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian University, the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and, of course, very close to Glasgow, we have the University of the West of Scotland. We also have Glasgow Kelvin College, Glasgow Clyde College and City of Glasgow College within the city, all of which attract huge numbers of international students. It is impossible to underestimate the contribution that they make to the economy. All Members have made that point, but I think the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) really hammered home the financial aspect and the economic multipliers that come as a result of having those students in our communities.

It is not just about the financial contribution. International students make critical contributions, particularly in areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths, where we are short of skills. They also contribute to the teaching staff of many universities. It is impossible to overestimate the damage that this Government have done to our international student community. As a result of this Government’s actions, the demographic has changed considerably. We have heard mention of the make-up of international students. We have seen a huge increase in the number of Chinese students coming to our universities. While, of course, they are very welcome, we have to appreciate that if the geopolitical situation is changed or disturbed we suddenly have a huge shortfall because we have not been recruiting actively enough in countries where we would have recruited in the past. That has to change. All the eggs have been put in one basket, and it is a pretty shaky basket at the moment.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a point about the decision made by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), to scrap the post-study work visas. That decision was entirely illogical; it spoke to a certain type of person, but it certainly did not speak to anybody who was hoping to develop new businesses or to bring in new skills and talent. That decision exacerbated skill shortages, again particularly in science and technology. That hostile immigration policy worked against the public interest.

I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised their short-sightedness and reintroduced the post-study work visa. However, the ramifications of that initial decision are still being felt. When the UK closed its doors to that talent, individuals looked and went elsewhere, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned. Other countries recognised those skills and benefited from them. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), it is not just our academic institutions that are casualties of that policy; it is also the wider community. We have lost brain power and entrepreneurs—we are still on the back foot today. Our academic institutions are trying to re-establish links with those countries, but that will take time. At a critical point, when we are trying to re-establish those links, the Home Secretary talks about reducing numbers. It is economically stupid, and it causes more reputational damage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling talked about the European institutions that are under threat, and our membership of those institutions is not guaranteed. That is not just about the money that we get from Horizon Europe, it is about the rich collaborations with organisations such as Euratom, Copernicus and Galileo. As a result of Brexit, EU students are now forced to pay international student fees and, as a result, we have seen a 73% decline in EU students coming to the UK. That is a huge hit to us and changes our demographic. Students from the EU are more likely to come and contribute and stay longer. If we do not have them here in the first place—not to mention the loss of Erasmus—we have a problem.

I will finish by talking about the rhetoric. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central talked about the Home Secretary’s recent comments. The rhetoric is problematic and it has to change. International students enrich our campuses and make a vital, positive contribution to our economy, culture and society. Research from Universities UK found that in my constituency alone, for one year, the economic benefit of international students was nearly £50 million. The fact that the Home Secretary may seek to limit international students and the wealth of knowledge and talent that they offer this country is hugely damaging. I welcome the Minister to his place; will he make representations to the Home Secretary in his new role to ensure that we can keep the flow of international students coming to enrich our communities?

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. Let me express my thanks for the way that you have chaired the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for bringing this debate about, and I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), to his new role.

We have heard widely about the passion for higher education across these islands. The hon. Member for Stirling talked about its importance and power to inform, enlighten and aid discovery. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) not just about the economic contribution that universities make, but about how they are cultural, social and economic powerhouses. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) talked about the soft power that our institutions have earned among Governments and institutions around the world, and the great achievements of the APPG. It is not just the size of the contribution that our institutions make that is so impressive; their cultural, societal and economic value cumulatively adds to the UK’s global reputation.

Let us be clear: the UK is the aspiration destination for most international students. Through a powerful combination of our world-class lecturers, leading facilities and institutions’ international standing, UK higher education is the benchmark around the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, that is clearly seen in the Higher Education Policy Institute’s soft power index, in which the UK is positioned second.

The virtues of British higher education are reflected and amplified through Governments and leaders around the world. Closer to home, international students turn university campuses into melting pots of cultures, traditions, languages and thinking. Only two weeks ago during a visit to Oxford Brookes University, I sat around a table with half a dozen students hailing from Bulgaria, Nigeria and Hong Kong, as well as from the UK, all studying international development and sustainability. They were using their individual experiences from back home to help to shape their learning and that of their fellow students. Many expressed a desire to return to their country of birth to show what they had learned from their lecturers and fellow students, but many want to stay.

International students add enormous value to the UK economy and research base. The Entrepreneurs Network estimates that nearly half of Britain’s 100 fastest-growing start-ups have at least one immigrant co-founder. That leads me nicely on to the economic value of international students. Their precise economic value is really secondary to the wider social and cultural benefits that they bring, but it is still an important contribution to the UK.

Research conducted by The London Economic and HEPI, commissioned by Universities UK, found that the 2018-19 cohort of international students delivered a net economic benefit of £26 billion to the UK economy. Although our economic benefit is most concentrated in London, as we have heard, the material benefit to each of our constituencies is marked, ranging from £460 per constituent in the north-east and Scotland to £330 per constituent in the south-east, and a staggering £2,200 in Sheffield Central. In spite of the clear and obvious benefits that international students bring to the UK, Government rhetoric on migration, including international students, has tarnished the UK’s reputation as the aspiration destination—a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan).

I note the fiscal black hole caused by the recent Budget, which hovers at £40 billion to £50 billion. Let us put that into the context of the £26 billion that international students bring to the UK. It is important that we welcome international students and do all we can to enhance our reputation rather than to trash it. Two weeks ago it was suggested that the then Home Secretary was set to announce sweeping reforms that would have seen international student numbers capped and limits imposed on the number of dependents that international students can bring. Not long before that statement was due, she resigned. Policies such as those, circulating in a sea of chaos at the heart of Government, dent the UK’s international reputation and risk putting off international students. I urge the Minister to set out his Department’s commitment to international student numbers and to seek a commitment from the Home Secretary that international students will not be the latest front in her culture war.

In contrast, Labour is fully committed to protecting, encouraging and advancing the interests of all students, including international students. A simple comparative approach between the replacement Erasmus+ scheme in Labour-run Wales and SNP-run Scotland shows that, where action is required, Labour will always put opportunity for our young people ahead of political manoeuvres. Earlier this year, the Labour Government in Wales launched Taith.

I will. Gambling on our young people’s prospects with politics is short sighted and narrow. The same could be said of the UK Government’s decision to withdraw from the European University Institute, a university based in Bologna that provided opportunities for young people, free of charge, to study for masters degrees and PhDs. Guided by our beliefs in opportunity, collaboration and partnership, Labour will support international students and continue to champion their worth, because, put simply, universities are forces for public good, and we should all champion and be proud of the international students who contribute to that good.

Minister, before I call you, can I ask you to leave a couple of minutes at the end for the winding-up speech? That will be at about 5.28.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on a very thoughtful speech. I love what he said about science and technology. I have a picture of President Kennedy on my wall in the Department for Education, because he put a man on the moon, and moved the whole engine of government, universities and science to achieve that purpose.

There has been a fair bit of doom and gloom, but our higher education sector has an extraordinary reputation. Four of the top 10 universities in the world are in the UK. It is no surprise that Britain is such a destination of choice for students around the world. We had the ambition of housing at least 600,000 international students in the UK per year by 2030, and we met it, for the first time, nearly 10 years early. There are 68,180 international students in Scotland. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) talked about EU students, but my figures show that, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, EU-domiciled student entrants increased by 4% in 2021 compared with the previous year. I am guessing that the hon. Lady’s figures are based on UCAS applications.

It has rightly been highlighted that international students contribute £25.9 billion to the economy, which is quite extraordinary, and are the source of over 60% of the UK’s education export earnings. Every resident is about £390 a year better off as a result. On the question asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), the net economic impact per student was estimated to be £95,000 per typical international student in the 2018-19 cohort. In other words, every 11 international students generate £1 million-worth of net economic impact for the UK economy over the duration of their studies.

I want to be clear that the target remains 600,000 students. That is something to be proud of. I am as keen on soft power as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). She gave an example of meeting somebody who had studied in the UK. I have met many people as well. When I was over in Taiwan, I met an incredible person who started showing us slides of the Beatles. He was in charge of national security, and we were wondering what was going on. He said, “I went to the University of Liverpool, and that is why I love your country.” I get it. I have seen people from Iraq—I know that the hon. Member for Stirling has been involved in Iraq. I have seen the incredible work that goes on with Kurdistan in northern Iraq, particularly; so many of the leaders came to this country. I completely understand why international students are so important. I am a liberal interventionist: I believe in soft power as much as hard power.

I accept what the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, said about relying too much on one cohort, or on people from certain countries. Just as a business should be cautious about being overly reliant on a single supplier, universities should be cautious about having a single source of income.

I remind Members that the Government appointed Sir Steve Smith as the UK’s international education champion. His job is to make the most of the opportunities in key priority regions. We have roughly 84,000 Indian students in our country, and he is exploring the opportunities for UK skills partnerships.

The Government should be proud of the Turing scheme. I know it is for students further afield, but it supports our students to go to places such as Germany or Spain, and all over the world. The Turing scheme is much wider than the Erasmus scheme and has students in vocational education. Some £100 million is being invested in it, and it has more than 38,000 students—not just from universities, but from further education providers and schools.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) talked about Glasgow City College in his constituency, which was very interesting.

Sorry, the City of Glasgow College, which has worked with Indonesian polytechnic colleges on skills for the maritime sector. That is what motivates me—skills and apprenticeships, and higher education—which is why the Turing scheme and other schemes are so important.

Of course, there are pressures on the overseas aid budget. I absolutely get that, and hopefully things will return to normal as soon as the financial conditions allow, but look at what we are doing to support Ukrainian students in the UK. A lot of work has gone into that. There is a twinning initiative set up by Universities UK and the Cormack Consultancy Group, which partners with a Ukrainian university. There are partnerships with higher education providers, including the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, Queen’s University Belfast and Sheffield Hallam University, and there is the work of the University of Stirling. I saw that it won sporting awards not so long ago, and it is offering Ukrainian students the opportunity to apply to transfer on to courses matching their original programmes.

In England, we have extended access to higher education student support, the home fee status tuition caps, advanced learner loans, and further education funding for those who are granted leave under one of the three schemes for Ukrainians that have been introduced by the Home Office. If that is not soft power in action, I do not know what is. It is all about spending our overseas aid money wisely, and migration changes.

I want to make it absolutely clear in my last few seconds that we remain committed to working towards our ambitions, which are set out in the international education strategy, to host at least 600,000 students per year in the UK by 2030. We will continue to welcome and attract international students to the UK in order to enable our domestic students to experience and hear fresh perspectives, and to allow our HE sector to thrive.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. It is good to see the emergence of an SNP-Labour-DUP coalition on these matters—together at last. Perhaps we are having a glimpse into the future. Who knows? Aside from our domestic world views, there is a lot of consensus among Opposition parties.

I am grateful to the Minister for his thoughtful response. If he has President Kennedy and the moon landing on his wall, he cannot be all bad. I did not think he was part of the problem before the debate, and he has confirmed today that he is not. However, I have to say that there are elements of the Government and his party who are. There are people who are trying to misrepresent student immigration by talking about the wider problem of immigration. I acknowledge that that needs to be addressed but, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said powerfully, the failure to address it does not mean that students should bear the brunt of that limitation. I was glad to hear the Minister’s confirmation that the 600,000 target remains in place.

I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that David Hume, a great Scottish philosopher, said that the truth emerges from an honest disagreement among friends. We sincerely disagree on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but I do not doubt for a second the hon. Gentleman’s sincerity. I acknowledge concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol and how it is operating, but there are lots of ways in which it could be reformed within the protocol. The European Commission has put forward a number of proposals that would go a long way to address those concerns, and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is holding back progress in so many other crucial and important aspects of the higher education sector, for Northern Ireland as well as for the rest of us. We disagree and will have further discussions on this issue, but I do not doubt his sincerity.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).