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Commonwealth Students: Engineering And Science

Volume 417: debated on Wednesday 18 February 1981

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2.50 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many new engineering and science students from Commonwealth countries had been admitted for their first year to United Kingdom universities and polytechnics, whether at undergraduate or at post-graduate level, as at 1st November 1980 compared with the numbers admitted in 1978 and 1979.

My Lords, in United Kingdom universities 2,739 new first-year engineering and science students from Commonwealth countries were admitted at undergraduate level in 1978 and 2,245 in 1979; at post-graduate level the numbers were 1,436 and 1,393 respectively. In polytechnics the corresponding numbers at undergraduate level were 942 and 906, and at postgraduate level 17 and 39 respectively. The polytechnic figures for undergraduate level students are solely in respect of those commencing first degree courses; there were an additional 539 students in 1978 and 456 students in 1979 starting non-advanced or advanced courses other than of first degree level. I regret that corresponding information for 1980 will not be available for several months.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and appreciate the evident trouble which the department has taken in producing these complicated statistics. Does she realise that from my point of view the significant period is not the two years 1978 and 1979, which she quoted, but the year starting 1st November 1979 and ending 1st November 1980, the figures for which I understand are not yet available but hopefully will soon be available?

Are the Government aware that the Association of Commonwealth Universities' Vice-Chancellors will shortly be meeting in Hong Kong to consider proposals for mitigating some of the more dangerous results of the recent very heavy increases in overseas students fees upon student mobility within the Commonwealth? Will the noble Baroness give an undertaking that when these proposals are available they will be given very serious consideration by the Government?

My Lords, I regret that the information for 1980 is not yet available, but as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, will appreciate, it is very difficult to get the information for this current academic year. We expect it to be available from the universities within the next few months and from the public sector at the end of the academic year. On the noble Lord's second point, we shall of course consider the findings of the conference of Commonwealth Universities' Vice-Chancellors.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that the success and proper working of almost all aid schemes depend directly on the availability of competent engineers and technologists in developing countries?

Yes, my Lords, I appreciate that point, and my noble friend will recognise the very high numbers of overseas students taking engineering courses.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether it is not the case that the Government undertook to monitor the results of their policy on fees? Can we expect a report on this at some time in the near future? Further, when the noble Baroness gives us this information, will it be possible for it to be broken down between the countries of origin of the students attending British institutions of higher education, so that we may see how many come from the oil-rich states and how many come from the poorer Commonwealth countries?

My Lords, the Government published a statistical bulletin, a copy of which is in your Lordships' Library, giving the effects of the figures that we have so far relating to the 1980–81 entry. That information is, of course, available to any noble Lord. This forms part of our monitoring of the numbers of overseas students which we accepted we would have. As for the other statistical information, I shall certainly take note of the point raised. I think that it will be available, as it has been available in the past.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is considerable concern in the Commonwealth, and in the third world, which is not necessarily included in the Commonwealth, about the great disparity in fees between those charged to Commonwealth students and those charged to students from Europe or, indeed, from very poor countries in the third world? Is not this grossly unfair and also very shortsighted in view of the fact that the more Commonwealth students we train and influence in this country, the better is the reception to both our commerce and our diplomacy in their home countries?

Yes, my Lords, this is of course a matter that we have discussed and debated in your Lordships' House on many occasions. Much as we all wish that more money was available for overseas students, the fact is that the education budget has to make its share of the economies for which the Government have asked, and under these circumstances the Government believe that it is right that these students from overseas should pay the full cost of their education here. The Government still believe that it is very good value for money to be able to get a first degree course in three years. Of course, we value and appreciate the need to have internationally recognised universities, and the advantage of overseas students being educated in this country, but we are still educating many thousands of them–2,000 more this year than were proposed under the former Labour Government's scheme.

My Lords, I should like to ask one further supplementary question. Is the noble Baroness aware that the Commonwealth Secretariat has appointed a committee to make constructive proposals regarding the fees paid by overseas students generally, and will she be in touch with the Commonwealth Secretariat in this regard?

My Lords, I am quite sure that my right honourable friend will be happy to look at any constructive proposals about this problem, but the noble Lord must recognise that the Government's commitments to making the savings are not something on which we can go back.

My Lords, is the term "overseas countries" deemed to include Europe?—because Commonwealth students pay substantially more than students from Europe do for the same tuition.

My Lords, no; the home rates of tuition fees apply to students from the EEC.

My Lords, is it not a fact that many independent countries within the Commonwealth are well able to pay the fees of overseas students? We should not lose sight of that fact. Has my noble friend any information as to where difficulties with regard to the payment of students' fees by overseas Governments are being experienced?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. The fees of many students from the developing countries of the Commonwealth are in fact paid by the Overseas Development Agency, which to the Government seems the right way of helping poorer students from the Commonwealth. We have also established a special scholarship fund for oustanding post-graduate students, which has been fully taken up.