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Universities: Visa Fees

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What impact assessment they have made of the effect on the higher education sector of a possible further increase in visa fees for international students; and what consideration they are giving to waiving such fees.

My Lords, the recent charging consultation document reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to attract genuine students to the United Kingdom. Students make a valuable contribution to our economic growth and cultural enrichment. We are currently working on options, based on research nearly complete, that will set fees at a level to meet the Government’s wider objectives, including the costs of running operations and maintaining services. Central to any decision will be the consideration of the market research on price. The final decisions have not yet been taken.

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, I draw his attention to the fact that he did not answer either parts of the Question on the Order Paper. The first related to an impact assessment. Does he recognise that on the last occasion when visa fees were raised for students, there was no impact assessment? He has not today given any undertaking that there will be one on this occasion, nor has he answered the question whether the Government are considering waiving visa fees for students in higher education. Does he not think that that is a rather feckless attitude to take towards what is a huge asset to the United Kingdom, which we are holding on to with difficulty in competition with countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States? We are losing market share. We need to take account of those points.

My Lords, we do not intend to waive the fees because the arrangements made with the Treasury are clear. We have to cover costs; those are the Treasury regulations in this matter, as I said to the noble Lord in an Answer more or less a year ago. The research to which I referred will be the most exhaustive piece of market research that will have been undertaken on pricing in this area. It will cover matters of impact and I promise that it will be made available in full to everybody who wishes to see it.

My Lords, we in the UK higher education sector are disadvantaged by the very slow and difficult processing of student visas, which means that we lose out on many students. Do Her Majesty's Government have a strategy that will make us competitive with other countries, such as there is in the United States, which now guarantees rapid processing of visa applications, including next-day interviews? I declare an interest as chairman of King’s College council.

My Lords, the overall performance of the service in issuing visas has improved enormously. Independent reports show that we are now probably the fastest country in the world in issuing visas. There are difficulties in that; if we are to have secure borders, we must have a system in which we can root out forged documents and forged education certificates, which—as I think everyone running universities now knows—constitute a serious risk to our border control. But we are meeting targets in almost all cases.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the costs as allocated include an allowance for the costs of appeals? That is one reason why the costs of renewing a visa in this country turn out to be so much higher than the estimated costs for introducing the identity card, which some of us feel is quite extraordinary. Will he also confirm that this represents a Home Office policy that goes against the policy of the education department and the Foreign Office of encouraging more student exchange and, in particular, of encouraging more students from developing countries to come to this country?

My Lords, the whole approach is to ensure that we charge for an end-to-end process, as the Treasury requires. I have been quite straightforward in telling the House that there are aspects of border control—of making sure that, before people come into the country, we are getting documents and evidence that can be verified or shown to have been forged—where there is a cost. But if this country is determined to have secure borders to the maximum possible extent as well as to welcome students—to which the Government and I personally are wholeheartedly committed—then there is a balance to be struck.

My Lords, I declare an interest as honorary president of the Association of American Study Abroad Programmes UK—I knew that I would have the longest title. Perhaps I can help my noble friend with his market research. Is he aware that the association estimates that some 7,500 such American students will require visas, but that they spend some £20 million each year in this country? Are those not 20 million good reasons for listening to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay?

My Lords, if there were a capacity, as some might argue that there should be, for us to set aside Treasury rules on how to cover costs, then the argument could be taken to another level. Yet the Treasury regulations are as they are. To aid everybody’s market research, I will point out that, despite what has been said, over the past year there was a 21 per cent increase in the number of students from China, a 27 per cent increase over comparative quarters from Turkey, and a 22 per cent increase from India. I will not go through the full list, but this country is in a positive state in the marketing of its higher education. Let us not assume that there is grief where there should actually be much pleasure.

My Lords, the Minister has now three times given as his reason for pursuing this policy the fact that the Treasury requires it. Is the Treasury no longer part of Her Majesty’s Government, for whom he answers?

My Lords, I know of no more powerful part of Her Majesty’s Government than Her Majesty’s Treasury. However, the fact is that we have to be able to pay for the systems that I have described. With end-to-end security, as well as rapid treatment of people when they apply for visas—in the past year, we had to pay for the introduction of biometrics, which will increase our security considerably—the money has to come from some reliable source. The Treasury is not to be condemned for that.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, when I was travelling in the Middle East this past weekend, people with whom I was discussing various business matters went out of their way to congratulate the United Kingdom on the speed with which we currently deal with our visas in that part of the world? They said that the service had improved immensely.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for making that point, because the statistics stand on their own. Whatever I say, I invite Members of the House to look at the statistics on the speed with which we deal with these things. I hope that that has contributed, for example, to the 24 per cent growth in the number of Saudi students in the United Kingdom in the past year.