My Lords, we will continue to engage closely with the education sector through the joint education task force on plans for a new points-based system for students and other policy-related changes. The Government are clear that the right policies on students can be determined only through close collaboration with the education sector. There are no plans for a further formal public consultation on the points-based system.
My Lords, given the benefits—academic, cultural, economic and diplomatic—of recruiting students and academic staff from abroad, do the Government agree that in a highly competitive market, and following the previous large increases in visa charges, the immigration regime should be made no more burdensome than necessary? Given also that when the Government consulted last autumn on the proposed points-based system which will require substantial investment in IT, new enforcement officers and new arrangements for registering sponsorship and employment contracts, they gave no indication of what the costs would be or where they would fall as between applicants, universities and the taxpayer, would it not be appropriate for them to consult again, this time disclosing the anticipated procedures and costs before bringing in the new system?
My Lords, the Government fully agree that foreign students are of enormous value academically, economically and politically. We further agree that the system should not be any more burdensome than necessary. However, we do not believe that it would be appropriate to have a further consultation.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the joint education task force. Does my noble friend agree that it would be disastrous for higher education if the implementation of the points-based system were to be delayed? It is due to come into force in 2009, and its implementation is imperative to avoid fraudulent entry into the United Kingdom. There is no reason whatever why this system should not improve the system of managed migration of students or be any more expensive.
My Lords, the Government fully agree that it is imperative that the system should be introduced in 2008, as envisaged. They further agree that it is extremely important, because education must not be abused as a means of getting legal entry into the UK.
My Lords, will the Minister assure us that under the points-based system we will at last get away from the situation which existed under the previous system when no distinction was made between people coming to this country to attend very small unknown language schools and those coming to the internationally known universities? As a result, the London School of Economic found some of its students being turned down by entry clearance officers. Can she also assure us that under the new system, visas will, as a matter of course, be issued for the length of the course for which the student has been invited to attend in this country?
My Lords, the Government believe that the points-based system will be much more transparent and fair, as requested by the noble Lord. In respect of the length of time that a degree takes, there will, as now, be a multiple entry. However, I know from past Questions that the noble Lord is particularly concerned about postgraduate students. The Government are considering that, because it seems ridiculous for a postgraduate student who is here for three years to have a visa for only two.
My Lords, how will the new student visa scheme and the points-based system be compatible with the Government’s aim, as expressed in phase 2 of the Prime Minister’s initiative, of significantly increasing the number of overseas students for UK universities? Will not the realisation of that objective require much more streamlining of the system than that which is currently planned? I declare an interest as chairman of King’s College.
My Lords, the Government believe that the new points-based system will enable us to achieve our aim of attracting a further 100,000 students by 2011 because the system will be much swifter and more transparent and will enable more bona fide students to come to this country. We believe that it is a win-win situation for students, for the academic institutions and for this country.
My Lords, we welcome a system that keeps fraudulent students out; that must be right. But we also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and with the Minister herself that the United Kingdom has an immensely valuable role as a receiving place for overseas students. Has she noticed that the UK Council for International Education has drawn attention to the continuing complexity of the whole business of applying for visas, which deters students? While making the whole process fairer and effective, would it not also be possible to make it simpler and thereby avoid turning away students altogether?