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Employment: International Graduates Scheme

Volume 693: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will extend the International Graduates Scheme to allow non-United Kingdom nationals graduating from recognised universities the right to work in the United Kingdom for two years, along the lines of the Fresh Talent Scheme currently operated in Scotland.

My Lords, the International Graduates Scheme came into operation only eight weeks ago, and it is therefore premature to consider changing the rules which govern it. However, eligibility for the scheme will be subject to periodic review, and the Government do not rule out extending it in the future. We will closely monitor Scotland’s Fresh Talent Scheme, which has been in operation for only two years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I did not plan to ask this Question about Scotland on the day that our new Prime Minister has taken office, and I am sure that my noble friends will join me in offering our congratulations to him.

Do the Government want to attract the best foreign students from around the world? By staying on and working for two years after they graduate, foreign students contribute to our economy, gain work experience, are able to pay back some of their education fees and, most of all, there will be a link with their countries for generations to come. To my knowledge, we have the same Home Office rules here as in Scotland. We now have a Prime Minister who openly champions Britain. Why cannot the Government put the two-year rule into place right now?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his opening remarks. I know that he accompanied the new Prime Minister on his visit to India in January. That was a very wise and prescient use of his time.

In respect of the International Graduates Scheme, only five weeks ago we introduced a scheme that allows overseas graduates to stay for a year. That is a significant move and change of policy because, at the moment, there are 220,000 students from outside the EEA in English higher education institutions. The Government see that as a significant change of policy. It is precisely in the direction that the noble Lord asked us to move, and we think it right to take account of progress in that policy before we consider extending it.

My Lords, although the Minister said that the scheme will be reviewed, given that immigration is not covered by devolution, does he not agree that it is unfair to have unequal visa treatment between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, higher education is a devolved issue, and we therefore think that it is appropriate for Scotland to be able to have different rules in this regard.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the importance of foreign graduates to science and technology and, in particular, to the academic departments of higher education institutions where they work as research assistants? Two years would be of considerable value to those departments.

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's point. She will be aware that before this latest scheme, we already had the Science and Engineering Graduates Scheme, which gave leave to remain for those in that sector. This expanded scheme is actually based on the experience of that scheme. As I said in response to the original Question, we will monitor the position closely. We think it right to evaluate the experience of the one-year scheme before we consider extending it to two.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, since this is so new and important, every institution of higher education should have the correct information to give to overseas students so that there is no ambiguity about their position? That is so important if the scheme is to be effective.

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. I have no reason to think that their information is not correct, but if the noble Lord has any evidence to the contrary that he would like to bring to my attention, I will of course look at it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to the benefit to this country, there would also be great additional benefit to the countries that these people return to, particularly in the third world?

My Lords, given that the Minister appeared to give approval to adoption of the two-year scheme in due course, how long will be needed to see this scheme settle down? Following what the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, the value to this country of students from overseas becoming embedded in the culture of this country pays off enormously when they return to their own country.

My Lords, the noble Baroness may have read too much into my remarks. I did not appear to be saying that we would move to two years. We introduced the one-year scheme only five weeks ago. I said that we would keep this issue under review and monitor closely the experience of Scotland, which has a two-year scheme. However, that scheme has been in existence for only two years.

My Lords, when noble Lords ask the Minister about differences between university systems north and south of the border, he always says, “That’s devolution”, and, of course, it is. But does he not agree that both the Government at Westminster and the Scots Parliament should bear in mind that universities are a UK, if not an international, market? It is a great mistake to have too great a difference between the two systems. Should that not be borne in mind?

My Lords, it should certainly be borne in mind, which is precisely why I said that we would monitor the situation in Scotland closely, look at its experience and see in due course whether there is anything we can learn from it.

My Lords, in reviewing the situation, will my noble friend consider the situation of the universities in the north-east, just a few miles across the border from Scotland, which are placed at a considerable competitive disadvantage in the recruitment of foreign students?

My Lords, I know that my noble friend has a particular university in mind in that regard. I understand the point he is making. Of course, that will be one of the factors we shall consider when we conduct our further review.

My Lords, will the Minister exercise his very considerable intelligence and, I hope, commensurate influence to persuade DfID to use part of its existing budget for this purpose, where it would do far more good?

My Lords, I believe that DfID strongly encourages students from developing countries to come here and sees that full use is made of their talents afterwards. However, I shall, of course, draw the noble Lord’s remarks to the attention of my colleagues at DfID.

My Lords, I am sorry if I misinterpreted the Minister’s first Answer, but how long will he require to review the working of the one-year scheme that has just been introduced?

My Lords, a great deal more than the few weeks since it was introduced. I cannot say precisely how long but if the noble Baroness wishes to ask me about that in a few months, I shall ask my officials to see what reflections we have on the initial experience. One of the issues that we need to address first is what the numbers are. Because the scheme has only just started we have no idea how many of the 220,000 overseas students studying in this country will choose to apply. If the Government are being responsible, it is absolutely correct that we should see what the impact of the one-year scheme is in numbers and patterns of students staying in this country before we commit to any extension.