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Universities: Non-EU Students

Volume 735: debated on Monday 6 February 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the UK Border Agency’s activities on the ability of non-European Union students to study at United Kingdom universities.

My Lords, the latest figures published by UCAS show an increase of 13 per cent in the number of university applications from students resident outside the European Union. Our original impact assessment forecasts no impact on universities.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he not recognise that the measures designed to combat bogus institutions are also having a severe effect on reputable institutions in the higher education sector? Would he not agree that, if the Government wish to reduce the headline figure of net immigration, it is inappropriate to include non-EU students in these figures? Under normal circumstances, without the impediments created by the Government, their numbers would be expected to follow a steeply upward trend, which would be highly profitable for the UK.

My Lords, I thought that was exactly what I just said in announcing a 13 per cent increase in those applying for universities. That strikes me as a very good thing indeed. It is quite right that we should stamp down on what the noble Viscount refers to as “bogus institutions”—I use his words, but I have previously used them myself. It is not fair on individuals coming to this country to come to an institution that is not providing them with proper education, and is being used merely as a vehicle to get around the immigration rules. What we have done is quite right. We are getting a grip on net migration figures but we are also seeing a growth in the number of genuine students coming to genuine universities.

My Lords, is it not true that there has been some decline in the market share of overseas students, particularly from India, who are a very important section? If students were not treated as migrants for the purposes of immigration policy, as happens in Australia and the United States, would this not be of great benefit to industry and to our universities; make it possible for the Government to meet their immigration targets comfortably; and make a difference of billions of pounds to the Treasury? Is this not a no-brainer?

My Lords, it is right that we should stamp down on those institutions which are trying to get round immigration by means of the bogus college route. My noble friend is also right to draw attention to the fact that there are some areas, such as the Indian sub-continent, where we are losing market share. There are, however, areas where there have been significant rises, particularly from Australasia where there has been an increase of some 20 per cent and from Hong Kong of some 37 per cent. We wish to continue to see those students coming in, but I also think they should be treated as part of the migration statistics. It is important that we get to grips with those, but we want to see them because they are a valuable export for this country.

My Lords, the Government have recognised the considerable economic and wider benefits that international students bring to this country and that is enormously welcome. However, in a speech on 2 February, the Immigration Minister, Damian Green, suggested that,

“the debate on student immigration needs to move on”.

He also said:

“There needs to be a focus on quality rather than quantity. The principle of selectivity should apply to student migration just as it does to work migration”.

Can the Minister explain what is meant by “selectivity” in relation to student migration and reassure the House that, on the basis of what he has said previously, it does not herald a further tightening of visa arrangements for international students in bona fide institutions?

My Lords, I welcome the intervention from the noble Baroness, particularly as she used to chair Universities UK. I will remind her that Universities UK said recently that our reforms will allow British universities to remain at the forefront of international student recruitment. We want that to continue, and that is what my honourable friend was making clear in his remarks. I want to underline again why we have seen an increase in the number of undergraduates coming in, but at the same time, we think it is right to tighten up on those coming in for other reasons and trying to get around the immigration rules.

My Lords, will the Government support student mobility in the opposite direction and extend the fee waiver to students who want to spend a year studying or working abroad in a non-EU country in the way that is available now under the Erasmus scheme only to students spending their year abroad within the EU?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will appreciate that that is a completely different question from the Question on the Order Paper. We are discussing the actions of the Home Office and the UK Border Agency and the effect they are having on students coming in. If the noble Baroness wishes to put down a Question on that subject, I am sure that one of my noble friends will be more than happy to answer it.

My Lords, when talking to the Cambridge Vice-Chancellor’s office a few months ago, it raised with me a problem about senior research students aged 28 or 30 who it wanted to attract from India, but who were mostly married. The problem was about their spouses coming in and I encountered the same issue in India. Has this issue been resolved?

My Lords, the restriction on bringing family members applies to undergraduates. The sort of senior research students who my noble friend refers to would be allowed to bring partners or members of their family with them, so I think I can say to my noble friend that that issue has been resolved.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that contrary to what he has said some bona fide institutions—universities—have lost as many as 20 per cent of their overseas students, particularly from India? Is he aware that the restrictions on employment when graduating will put us in a very unfortunate position compared with our main competitors, the United States and Australia, which have much more generous arrangements for students who wish to work in the UK, for a temporary period, when they graduate?

My Lords, as I said, the overall figures show an increase, particularly in undergraduates. It might be that some particular institutions are losing out, and particularly on those from the Indian subcontinent, but we have seen proportionate increases elsewhere. I do not know whether the noble Baroness is old enough to remember the changes we announced back in the early 1980s when, again, there were cries that they would cause fatal damage to all the universities for ever. However, as the noble Baroness might be able to remember, on that occasion we saw an increase in the numbers of those attending universities, just as we will see one now.