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Student Visas

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, the UK has a worldwide reputation for providing quality education to overseas students. Britain is, rightly, the destination of choice for many people wishing to study abroad but under the last Government the student visa system became the symbol of a broken and abused immigration system. Labour claimed it had capped unskilled immigration at zero but was happy just to sit back and watch as unskilled migrants abused the student route to come here.

We had too many people coming here to work and not to study. We had too many foreign graduates staying on in the UK to work in unskilled jobs and too many institutions selling immigration, not education. We want to attract only the best and the brightest to Britain. We want high-quality international students to come here. We want them to study at genuine institutions, whose primary purpose is providing a first-class education, and we want the best of them—but only the best—to stay on and work here after their studies are complete.

That is exactly what we are doing across all the immigration routes. We are tightening up the system, tackling the abuse and supporting only the most economically beneficial migrants. I have already announced and begun to implement our plans to limit economic migration, cutting the numbers by over a fifth compared with last year. I will be returning to the House later this year with a consultation that will set out proposals that break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement. I also intend to consult on changes to the family migration route. I will be bringing forward proposals to tackle sham marriages and other abuse, to promote integration and reduce the burdens on the British taxpayer.

We aim to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands back down to the tens of thousands. The most significant migrant route to Britain is the student route, so we must take action here too. Immigration by students has more than trebled in the last 10 years and is now far larger than through work or family routes. It is unsurprising that more and more overseas students are attracted by our world-renowned higher education institutions but there has also been an increase in abuse in the private further education sector. Students now make up the majority of non-EU migrants: including their dependants, they accounted for around two-thirds of the visas issued last year under the points-based system.

When Labour introduced the current system in 2009, almost a third more student visas were issued that year than in the year before, with an increase from 230,000 to 300,000. Numbers were so high that the UK Border Agency had to suspend student applications in some parts of the world because it could not cope with the demand. Much of that demand was simply not genuine. We have so-called students turning up at Heathrow Airport who cannot answer basic questions in English or even describe what their course is about. One institution has an intake of whom 90 per cent are international students and only asks for GCSE-level qualifications to do a supposedly degree-level course. Another college’s own sales agent actually helped a student to cheat in their entry exam. Legitimate colleges should still be able to recruit legitimate overseas students but we need to stop the abuse and return some common sense to our student visa system.

The current system is based on a sponsorship regime which trusts educational institutions to assess the quality and ability of students, and puts the responsibility on the institution to ensure the student is actually studying and obeying the Immigration Rules. That trust has been well placed in some sectors: universities, independent schools and publicly funded further education colleges mostly take their sponsorship duties seriously and act responsibly. Yet some, particularly in the private FE sector and parts of the English language college sector, are not exercising the due diligence that we would expect. These institutions make up the largest single group on the sponsor register. The sector is essentially unregulated: they are not subject to a statutory system of education inspection and can offer any type of course they like. Although some of these institutions are legitimate, for many their product is not an education but immigration, together with the ability to work here.

It is absolutely clear that the current regime has failed to control immigration or to protect real students from poor-quality colleges. That is why the proposals I am announcing today are unashamedly targeted at the least trustworthy institutions. Our proposals protect the interests of our world-class universities, they protect our leading independent schools and public FE colleges and, ultimately, they are in the best interests of legitimate students.

In future, all sponsors will need to have been vetted by one of the approved inspectorates—either Ofsted and its devolved equivalents, the Quality Assurance Agency or the relevant Independent Schools Inspectorate —and all must become highly trusted sponsors. Once they achieve that status, private colleges offering quality, bona fide training programmes of genuine educational value will be able to continue to recruit legitimate international students.

All current sponsors who do not meet the requirements will be allowed to stay on the register for a short period from April 2011. During that time, they will be limited in the number of students they may sponsor. They will first have to apply for highly trusted sponsor status and accreditation. They will then be required to achieve highly trusted sponsor status by no later than April 2012 and accreditation by the relevant agency by the end of 2012. As well as cracking down on bogus colleges, we will also crack down on bogus students. Students who want to come here should be able to speak English, to support themselves financially without taking paid employment and to show that they are coming for study and not for work, so we will toughen up the entry requirements.

First, we will strengthen the evidence that students need to demonstrate that they have the financial means to fend for themselves. Secondly, we will streamline the requirements for students from low-risk countries and prioritise resources on high-risk students. Thirdly, we will toughen up the rules on English language competence. Those coming to study at degree level will have to speak English at an upper intermediate level. Others will have to speak English at an intermediate level.

UKBA officers will be given the discretion to refuse entry to students who cannot speak English without an interpreter and who do not meet the required minimum standards. Let me be clear: you need to speak English to learn at our education establishments. If you cannot, we will not give you a visa.

If someone is coming to the UK as a student, study should be their main purpose, not work. So we will end permission to work during term time for all students other than those at university and publicly funded education colleges. Students at public sector FE colleges will be allowed to work for 10 hours per week, and students at university for 20 hours per week. We will reduce the amount of work that can be done on work placement courses for non-university students from 50:50, as now, to two-thirds study, one-third work.

At present, students on courses of six months or more can bring their dependants with them. In 2010 over 31,000 student dependants came here. We will remove this right for all but postgraduate students at universities and Government-sponsored students.

Coming to the UK to study a course should by definition be a temporary step, so we will limit the amount of time that students can spend in the UK. Too many students who originally come on short courses have been staying here for years and years by changing courses, often without showing any tangible academic progress. We will limit the overall time that can be spent on a student visa to three years at lower levels, as now, and five years at higher levels. There will be exceptions for longer courses, such as medicine and veterinary science and PhD study, but no longer will students be able to stay here and switch from course to course to course.

We want the very best international graduates to stay on and contribute to the UK economy, but the arrangements that we have been left with for students who graduate in the UK are far too generous. They are able to stay for two years, whether or not they find a job and regardless of the skill level of that job. In 2010, at a time when one in 10 UK graduates was unemployed, 39,000 non-EU students with 8,000 dependants took advantage of this generosity. So we will close the current post-study work route from April next year. In future, only those graduates who have an offer of a skilled graduate-level job from an employer that is licensed by the UK Border Agency will be allowed to stay.

Post-study migrants must be paid at least £20,000 or the appropriate rate for the occupation, as set out in the relevant code of practice, whichever is higher. This will prevent employers recruiting migrants into skilled occupations but paying them less than the going rate. We estimate that had that been applied last year, it would have halved the numbers staying in the UK through this route. We will not impose a limit on this group next year, but we will keep this position under review.

If the number of foreign students entering the labour market as post-study workers increases significantly and unexpectedly, we will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look at how any abuses can best be addressed. That could potentially include the introduction of a separate temporary limit on post-study workers. As we restrict the post-study work route, we will ensure that innovative student entrepreneurs who are creating wealth are able to stay in the UK to pursue their ideas. The message to the brightest and the best students around the globe is clear: Britain’s world-class universities remain open for business.

We recognise the need to implement these changes in a staged manner that minimises disruption to education providers and students. We will therefore implement the measures in three stages, starting with new rules that will be laid by the end of this month. I will publish full details shortly.

The package of measures that I have outlined today is expected to reduce the number of student visas by 70,000 to 80,000, a reduction of over 25 per cent, and it will increase the outflow of foreign students after they have concluded their studies. It will mean a proper system of accreditation to root out bogus colleges; tough new rules on the English language, financial guarantees, working rights and dependants to root out bogus students; and new restrictions on post-study work to make sure that all but the very best return home after study. This package will stop bogus students studying meaningless courses at fake colleges. It will protect our world-class institutions, it will stop the abuse that became all too common under Labour and it will restore some sanity to our student visa system. I commend it to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I say at once that I am glad that the Government have had second thoughts on this matter.

The Minister will be aware of the concerns expressed in your Lordships’ House on 15 and 16 February about the impact of the original Home Office proposals on universities in the UK and the seeming conflict between his department and BIS. On the one hand we had the noble Lord, Lord Green, the Trade Minister, speaking warmly of the role of British educational institutions as export earners. On the other hand, we had the Home Office putting forward proposals that would have had a devastating impact on the finances and reputation of our universities. I remind your Lordships that Universities UK called the original proposals “damaging and dangerous”, the UK Council for International Student Affairs called them,

“potentially the most damaging for a decade if not a generation”,

and the Association of MBAs, writing in The House magazine, was equally concerned about the impact on recruitment, business and growth.

Our universities are one of our crown jewels and we should cherish the esteem in which they are held internationally. No wonder other countries were lining up to take advantage of the threatened changes here and attract many thousands of bright students away from their preferred destination, the United Kingdom.

In the Statement, the Minister said that the message to the brightest and best students around the globe is that Britain’s world-class universities remain open for business. Amen to that, but can the Minister assure me that the final decision of the Home Secretary has been communicated to and discussed with our universities? What has their response been?

What impact does the Minister think that the proposals will have on the income to be earned from international students? I remind him that Universities UK estimates that, in a market that is growing at about 7 per cent per year, international students offer the UK considerable growth potential and bring huge benefits to regional and national economies. Its estimate is that international students contribute more than £5 billion to the UK economy through tuition fees and off-campus expenditure as well as bringing extensive cultural and political benefits to the UK and, as a result, creating local jobs as well. Is the Minister confident that the Government’s proposals will not have an impact on those benefits?

I turn to the post-study work mechanism. Although this is to be closed, the Government have decided to retain the right of international students to work for a period of time in the UK after graduation in graduate-level jobs. Again, Universities UK has said that this is critical in attracting international students to the UK. Without it we would be at a severe competitive disadvantage to countries such as Canada, the US and Australia. It is reported frequently that international students feel that it is very important when they come here to be able to deploy their skills in the workplace for a limited time before going home. This also boosts employers in the UK who are looking for trained graduates in strategically valuable disciplines. As the noble Earl described in the Statement, the rules around this mechanism are to be tightened. Can he guarantee that the overall package that will now be on offer to prospective international students, including the post-study work mechanism, will none the less be at least comparable to those of other countries, and that we will not be put at a competitive disadvantage?

I note the actions that the Government intend to take in relation to bogus colleges and bogus students. We welcome such actions and will study them with a great deal of interest. However, as the Statement made some rather pejorative points about the previous Government, I ask the noble Earl to confirm that the previous Government took action to close down many bogus colleges. Will he confirm that, as a result of that action, more than 140 colleges were closed?

I also ask the noble Earl about the capacity of the UKBA, which will have an important role to play in policing these new arrangements. The noble Earl will be aware that, as a result of cuts in his department, the UKBA is expected to lose a total of about 5,000 staff from its employ. Can he confirm—and reassure me—that the UKBA is in a position to manage its affairs effectively in relation to international students, alongside the many other responsibilities that the Government have given the UKBA in the past few months on the one hand, and to reduce its staff by 5,000 on the other?

Finally, the Statement said that we want high-quality international students to come here. I applaud that. Can the Minister assure me that his department will work closely with universities and Universities UK to monitor the position on a regular basis, so that the impact of these changes will be measured and adjustments made if it is apparent that there is an adverse effect on our universities?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his comments and the tone of his response. The UK has a worldwide reputation for providing quality education to overseas students. We want to attract only the best and the brightest, but there has been too much abuse. We need to stop such abuse and return some common sense to our student visa system. The policies I have outlined today will achieve this. A proper system of accreditation will help to root out the bogus colleges. Tougher entry requirements will ensure that only genuine students who can speak English and support themselves financially can come here. The package of measures will protect our world-class universities and stop the abuse.

The noble Lord referred to the Government’s second thoughts and talked about conflict within the Government. He must understand that a balance must be struck between all the needs of different government departments and different parts of the economy. We have listened: the position of universities has been protected in many ways and we have adjusted our proposals. The noble Lord said that other countries were lining up to take our place. They will be disappointed. Our target, as I said in the Statement, is the private sector further education colleges. It is too early to report on the response from the universities sector but I strongly agree with what the noble Lord said about the economic importance of that sector.

The noble Lord talked about post-study work opportunities. I agreed with much of what he said. Yes, I am confident that we will have a good post-study work regime. An employer with a competent human resources department will be able to manage the changes and new procedures. The noble Lord referred to certain aspects of the drafting of the Statement. He will have been in exactly the same position as me; perhaps he could make a suggestion to the Procedure Committee about how drafting might best be addressed. We will certainly be monitoring implementation of this policy very carefully for the reasons that the noble Lord described.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and as the organiser of a scheme that brings American students to work in Parliament for a period each year. I greatly welcome the sensitivity of the Statement, but I urge my noble friend to ensure that the monitoring to which he referred is indeed careful, continuous and very sensitive. Does he agree with me that it is better that a few bogus students come into this country than that a single potential Nobel Prize winner is kept out?

My Lords, I agree with most of what my noble friend said—nearly everything, in fact. He touched on the parliamentary interns. I have used them in the past. I asked my officials about parliamentary interns this morning. I hope we maintain an effective system and I am sure we will monitor that very carefully.

Can I ask the Minister to make a number of points about the Statement quite clear? He referred in the Statement—which I am grateful to him for repeating—to private sector further education colleges. Can he make it clear that his strictures do not apply to private sector higher education colleges? In saying that, I declare my interest as the chairman of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers and chairman of the board of the London School of Commerce, a private sector higher education college with 7,000 students. Those 7,000 students are all also registered with a state university that awards their degrees. It would do major damage to state universities—at a time when they are already being deprived of government funds and the teaching of overseas students is an income stream for them—if that sort of provision, particularly that which links the private and the public sectors, was in any way damaged.

Finally, will the noble Earl confirm that what the whole of the education sector now needs is no more consultations or big new deliberations? We have had them almost continuously now for five years. We need to let the education sector, which is going through a time of major financial crisis, get on and deliver its role. In doing that, I hope the Government will take equal note of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, which was published last week.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about the difference between higher and further education. I would make the point that there are private sector further education colleges that are perfectly respectable. Not every single one is bogus. However, that is where most of the problems lie. The noble Lord pleaded for no more consultations. Unfortunately, that is outside my gift and that of the Home Office, on behalf of which I am speaking.

My Lords, the noble Earl described how the present situation arose through, in effect, displacement. There have been people who sought to work here but found that the only way to get a visa was to register for an FE course—preferably a bogus one that left them lots of time. I hope that the Government are considering the possibility of another displacement effect that could arise from the present regime. I suspect that once it is known that UK students can potentially borrow a substantial amount for their student loan, overseas higher education providers will set up franchise operations in the UK. I am sorry to say that quite a lot of these franchise operations will not have the same standards as those of the parent organisation in the home country, which may be a very respectable university. However, those operations will be here to cherry pick and provide things more cheaply. They will also make such offerings available to overseas students coming to the UK. This may seem to be merely more business, but unfortunately it may be a route by which, once again, we find that there is one way that you can head if you are looking to get a student visa without having to do any hard studying. The difference in this case is that the higher education institutions are not subject to regulation—given that they are autonomous institutions, as Ministers have frequently said—but franchised, overseas-based HE institutions might be a problem under the regime that the noble Earl described.

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s first point on the problem of displacement is extremely important: you solve one problem but it reappears in another guise somewhere else. We will obviously monitor the effects of the new policy. The linked matter that the noble Baroness mentioned is also important, and I will write to her to give her any reassurance I can.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we need to be confident about the numbers? At the moment, the number of incoming students is based on the number of visas applied for. Naturally, that is an overestimate; but regarding evaluation of the exit figures, unless the students say, “I have finished my studies”, they are not counted as students going out. If they say, “I am going back to work”, they are counted as economic migrants.

Are the restrictions on off-campus work done during the week, mentioned in the consultation paper, being relaxed? Many of us are concerned about the degree-related work that would be affected, as well as the casual work that many students undertake to keep them going. Post-study work has been referred to. What criteria for licences will the UKBA apply? Restrictions are unlikely to attract the “brightest and the best”—I use the Government’s phraseology. While we are considering language, can we stop regarding student visas as immigration? Their value in a much wider context has been made clear by many Members of the House.

The noble Baroness makes a couple of important points. The first was about measuring the numbers. The international passenger survey is run by the Office for National Statistics for a number of purposes. One of the main aims is to provide information on the number of migrants entering and leaving the UK. The IPS is the foundation for the ONS figures on long-term international migration, and the survey includes adjustments to take account of migration to and from Northern Ireland from 2008 onwards as well as for asylum seekers and people whose length of stay changes from their original intentions. The ONS figures on net migration are the best available measure, have been on a consistent definition since 1991, are produced in accordance with ONS codes of practice, and are used widely across government. The ONS uses a long-standing UN standard definition of a migrant as someone who enters or leaves the UK for more than a year—and that obviously includes students.

The noble Baroness also asked me about post-study work. We listened to what we were told during the consultation and have changed the policy relating to work requirements. There will be no change for students studying at universities: they can work a limit of 20 hours per week during term time, but they can work full time in the vacation and will not have an on-campus restriction. Students at FE colleges will be allowed to work 10 hours a week in term time, and full time in vacation. All other students will have no permission to work. Regarding employers and post-study work, the most important issue is that they should offer graduate-calibre work—most universities in their glossy prospectuses do not state that post-study work will involve work in a burger bar.

My Lords, I also thank the noble Earl for his Statement. I endorse what has been said by others. Visiting students add so much to the life of Britain, and students who are born here benefit from the enrichment of being with students from other cultures and other parts of the world. We also make long-term friendships. When I was chair of the British Council and I travelled abroad, it was most wonderful to meet government Ministers and business partners among people who had had such a good experience here that they remained warm in their feelings about Britain. You cannot put a price on that. I hope that we do not in any way discourage many people from coming here to study.

I am president of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. This issue is a source of concern to us because we are an arts and humanities university. We train people in very unusual languages, and many of those students go into the Diplomatic Service. The languages include Japanese, Chinese, and those of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I remind this House of the impact in terms of income that the shift in policy on higher education will mean for an institution such as ours, and of the impact of that loss of income if the changes are made.

Perhaps I may highlight a number of problems. The visa system already creates problems for us—a feeling that is probably shared by many of the university chancellors who sit in this House. Students often cannot get here for the start of a term because the visa process takes such a long time, and that is because the process has become so convoluted. My first question for the noble Earl is: will there be a fast-track system for visa applications for those who are coming to the well established universities in this country? Will there be a method that somehow does not involve the current delays and investigations? Sometimes students cannot start their degree courses at the appropriate time, and they lose out.

Secondly—and I know that this is true of other universities—students who do not speak English come to us at SOAS from places such as Japan and China. They are incredibly bright and they learn the language very quickly. Not allowing anyone to come without having our language is a problem. We also run pre-entry courses for people to learn English and to acclimatise before going to other universities. Will we be prevented from offering those kinds of courses under this new regime?

The noble Baroness said that visiting students add so much. In effect, she talked about soft power and said that you cannot put a price on that. In your Lordships’ House, I have for a long time been interested in, and have spoken about, defence. The noble Baroness could not be more right. She could not overemphasise the importance of visiting students. She also mentioned the important issue of loss of income for institutions. However, if students are genuine, there should not be a loss of income. She talked about entry clearance for students at universities. We have made some simplifications for students coming here to study at university. It will be easier for them, for instance, to show that they have the resources to support themselves. However, it will be much more difficult for those students to go to a private FE college. Visas for university courses are often prioritised at posts overseas, but we advise applicants to apply in good time.

My Lords, we have in this House more than 50 chancellors of universities and their equivalents. As my noble friend may know, we had a meeting not long ago at which there was a universal sense that the old proposals, if I may call them that, were an own goal of the most stupendous proportions. I seek some reassurance from the Minister. I accept that what he said today—although we will need to look at it carefully—appears to represent a major shift away from the previous proposals. However, are the Government fully aware of how much stronger the competition is in the world outside these islands for the students whom we are successful in attracting? Are they therefore aware that the assumptions about a growth of roughly 7 per cent per annum in the number of students coming to our higher education institutions may have to be reduced, not because we want that but because everybody is trying to get these students? Thirdly, are the Government aware that the universities, for perfectly understandable reasons, will be under the cosh financially in the next few years?

Finally, the Minister spoke reassuringly about treating the highly trusted higher education institutions separately from private colleges. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, made a perfectly proper point, but am I right in assuming that the overwhelming concentration of the Government's anti-avoidance measures will be directed now at those private institutions? As a result, will he assure us that the estimates made by the Migration Advisory Committee, which he mentioned, that we would lose 50 per cent of our higher education intake from outside the EU over the next five years, are a statistic that we may consign to history?

My Lords, the noble Lord talked about the number of university chancellors in your Lordships' House—don't I know it—and he described our consultation proposals as an own goal. They were consultation proposals. We have fine-tuned them to meet the concerns of those who will be affected. We are aware that there is strong competition. It is difficult to compare the opportunities that different countries offer. Some are more generous in one respect but take it away in another. We are well aware of the financial situation of the university sector.

The noble Lord talked about highly trusted sponsor status. When he looks at the detail he will find that many institutions will have to have highly trusted sponsor status. He mentioned some alarming statistics. They are alarming, but they are not related to reality.

My Lords, I am very pleased with the way in which the Government have responded to the consultation. Although we will have to look at these proposals very carefully, it seems that they have recognised the importance of attracting international students to our higher education institutions. I was particularly taken with the point that the suspicion of immigration abuse will be linked to the type of institution rather than to the level of study.

Perhaps the Minister will say something about the impact of these proposals on pre-university pathway programmes. It is worth remembering that nearly half the students engaged in such pathways go on to higher education. This forms part of the attractiveness of our immigration system for international students. Will the Minister now ensure that the changes in the scheme and the impact on students are very widely publicised? A great deal of damage has already been done to Britain’s attractiveness because it looks as though we are not open and welcoming to international students. Much work was put in over many years to ensure that Britain became and remained an attractive destination, and we have been enormously successful in attracting those students.

Finally, I am anxious about postgraduate working opportunities. They have been part of a package to keep our best students in the UK and to enhance in particular many of our science and technology industries. It would be an enormous shame if we were not able to retain those students and did not remain at least competitive with the features of other countries in their attractiveness to international students in this regard.

My Lords, first, the noble Baroness talked about pathway programmes. I fully understand their importance, but in future most of them will have to be sponsored by a university; there will have to be much more of a linkage. She talked about promulgating the changes. They will be promulgated in a wide variety of suitable media. She also talked about post-study work. We absolutely understand the need to retain that—I made a comment about the university prospectus and burger bars—and we want people to carry on doing post-study work, but at the appropriate graduate level. We definitely appreciate the importance of this.

My Lords, I understand about the time, but I wish to make a complaint. More noble Lords would be able to contribute if others asked only two questions and did not make long statements. At least three noble Lords have been shut out.