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Postgraduate Research Applications: Visa Changes

Volume 744: debated on Monday 29 January 2024

2. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of changes to visa fees and conditions on the number of applications for postgraduate research. (901184)

19. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of changes to visa fees and conditions on the number of applications for postgraduate research. (901204)

Our visa changes strike the right balance, ensuring we have a fair and robust migration policy but maintaining the UK’s place as a top destination for the best and brightest from around the world. The hon. and learned Lady will be pleased to know that we continue to attract the best scientists from across the world: we have over 46,000 postgraduate research students from overseas, 41% of the total, producing groundbreaking and collaborative research.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but I am afraid the evidence does not entirely bear out what he is saying, because UCAS figures reveal a notable fall in accepted applications from international students. Both Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Napier universities in my constituency of Edinburgh South West are highly sought after destinations for international PhD students. Both carry out vital scientific research, with strong links to commercial and industrial needs—not just in Scotland, but across the United Kingdom and, indeed, across Europe and the world—but the Government’s visa rules are making those universities far less attractive destinations for international students. Is the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), the former science Minister, not right when he says that the UK

“will never be a science superpower behind a visa paywall”?

I know that the hon. and learned Lady is a stickler for data. Our target was for over 600,000 international students every year, and we are well over that target. As I say, our visa changes strike the right balance, being fair to the taxpayer while ensuring that we have good international students coming to our country.

The minimum salary requirement for a skilled worker visa is set to increase by 48%, from £26,200 to £38,700, jeopardising the prospects of early-career researchers and academics coming to the UK. Can the Minister answer the question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) that he did not answer: how will the UK be a science superpower behind that visa paywall?

I think I have set that out. We have 36% of university researchers coming from outside the UK, and over 46,000 postgraduate students from overseas—41% of the total. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the real cost of the SNP’s tuition fee policy is that Scottish universities are unable to provide places for local students, who are 13% less likely to take a place at a university in Scotland than English students are to take a place in England.

Will the Minister be investigating the discovery, exposed by The Sunday Times yesterday, of Russell Group universities taking students with much lower academic qualifications for undergraduate degrees, and when he does so, will he check that the same is not happening in the postgraduate field, given the much higher fees that can be charged for overseas students?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He will know that, while I am a strong supporter of international students, I am absolutely clear that I want a level playing field for all domestic students as well. I met vice-chancellors only yesterday afternoon, as soon I had seen the report in The Sunday Times, and I have asked the Department for Education to carry out an urgent investigation into bad practice by agents where it occurs, as I was very disturbed by what I saw. We want absolute fairness of entry for domestic students as much as for international students.

I listened to the Minister’s response to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), but in December I was also assured by the Minister that he was committed to the target of 600,000 international students. However, recent research from IDP has found 45% of its August and September applicants to study in the UK would consider changing their study destination if post-study work visa lengths are shortened. What is his assessment of the impact that any changes to the postgraduate work visa could have on the international education strategy and the sustainability of the sector?

The hon. Gentleman, the Opposition spokesman, knows that visa matters are for the Home Office. The Migration Advisory Committee is looking at the postgraduate international student visa route and will come to its conclusions. However, as I keep saying to him, our target was for over 600,000 international students a year, and we have well surpassed that.