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Migration: University-sponsored Students

Volume 736: debated on Monday 30 April 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to excluding university-sponsored students from the United Kingdom’s net migration statistics.

My Lords, the UK uses the internationally agreed definition of a migrant, which is someone coming to or leaving the United Kingdom for a period exceeding 12 months. It is right that students intending to stay for that period should be counted because during their stay they are part of the resident population and contribute to pressure on public services infrastructure. It is not appropriate to discount them from net migration statistics.

My Lords, the department makes no distinction between temporary and permanent migration. Many other countries do, and still fall within the UN definitions. That means that the Home Office is targeting net migration figures that include overseas students, which is directly contrary to the policy of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Surely now that the e-Borders system will be able to track very closely non-EEA students and other citizens coming into this country, it is time to exclude those students from the net migration figures and have a unified government policy.

My Lords, I am afraid that in terms of migration my noble friend has got it right. I do not think he would want me to adjust the figures purely to achieve the ends that he suggests, as there might be complaints from the House that we were fiddling the figures, and I do not want to be accused of that. We stick by the long-standing international United Nations measure that students who come to the UK for more than a year are counted as migrants.

My Lords, I have just returned from the annual UK-India round-table meeting, and this very question was raised. Why cannot the Government exclude foreign students from the target? Foreign students bring up to £8 billion of revenue into this country. In fact, the Government should be trying to double the number of foreign students from 440,000 to 800,000, bringing in another £8 billion. Does the Minister agree—I know this from experience, as my family was educated in this country from India for three generations—that by encouraging foreign students you build generation-long links, with huge benefit to this country?

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord in that I accept that students coming to universities—and I stress that the Question is purely about students coming to universities—provide very great value to this country, and we want to see their numbers increase in many areas. They have increased over the past year or so, as I understand it, but we want to get rid of some of the bogus students who come here not to study but to work—and that is what we are doing.

It is important that we stick to international UN definitions. As I said, there would be considerable criticism of me if I suggested that we should fix those figures purely for our own purposes.

My Lords, if the Government were to accept the proposal put to them by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would they not thereby confer a great benefit on UK universities and on bona fide international university students, as well as on our international standing, and at the same time be able to hit their own immigration target figures, which they have otherwise not a hope of achieving?

The noble Lord is, yet again, another one who wants me to fix the figures. I do not want to do that. We want to do these things in a proper way, and the definition of migrants is that they are people staying for over a year. We welcome students and do what we can to get them, but we are not going to fix the figures in the manner that he suggests.

My Lords, is it not the case that the situation has been made very much worse by the numbers of students who have come here from foreign countries and not left but remained here, making great difficulties? Is not that point at the heart of this difficulty?

My noble friend is right to point out that quite a large number of students stay on, but the other point to make to her is that quite a number of people coming over in the past—not the university students that we are talking about—were coming over to colleges that did not really exist and were there purely as a scam to get around migration statistics. That is what we have been trying to deal with.

My Lords, is this policy not the result of a basic intellectual confusion that has very serious and harmful effects? First, it distorts the statistics on immigration, which causes concern. Secondly, as we have heard, it is extremely harmful to universities and deters many would-be bona fide students from overseas countries, with a great loss of revenue. Thirdly, it seriously imperils relations with Commonwealth countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and India. Should we not think again?

I think that if the noble Lord looks at the statistics he will find that there has actually been an increase in the number of students from Malaysia and Singapore. I appreciate that there has been a decline in the number from India, but there have been increases from elsewhere. Here we are talking about university students, and we have not seen an overall drop in those numbers.

Again I go back to the point that it is quite obvious that the noble Lord seeks to ask me to fiddle the figures. I do not want to do that.

My Lords, if the Government are not happy to change the system of permanent and temporary migration figures, and given that in the past they have said that they cannot always track students leaving the country, will they please consider using the HESA statistics, which record students when they leave the country—or, even better, get the border agency to ask students as they leave whether they have completed their studies rather than just where they are going?

My noble friend goes on to a somewhat more detailed point, which I will have to look at. I would certainly be more than happy to do that and write to her.

My Lords, as a student who stayed and was educated at school and university here, I have to say that many of us do not come here just to work but to contribute. We have a lot to contribute, and the current limitations mean that students from the Middle East, particularly from countries such as Iran but also elsewhere, cannot get access any more because the limits are so tight that anyone from outside the Commonwealth has enormous difficulty getting in. Some of us do make good.

My Lords, I think the whole House is grateful that the noble Baroness came and stayed here, and for the contribution that she has made to the House, but she will also recognise that we have a duty to make sure that we have some control over our migration figures. We are trying, as I was trying to make clear earlier, to get some control over some of the more bogus applicants who claim that they were coming in to study, whereas in fact they were coming in for other purposes.