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Immigration: Foreign University Students

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to the benefits to the United Kingdom of ceasing to classify foreign university students as economic migrants.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a member of the council of the University of Kent.

My Lords, the United Kingdom uses the internationally agreed definition of the migrant, which is someone who comes here for over 12 months. It is right that students staying for that period are counted because during their stay they are part of the resident population. It would damage public confidence in statistics to discount them.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that somewhat familiar reply. The main reason he has given in replies to earlier questions—he has just given it again—for not changing our present practice of classifying students for policy purposes in the net migration figures is the existence of a UN guideline to the effect that anyone who stays for a year is a migrant. Can he confirm that the guideline does not have the force of international law, is therefore not binding on the British Government and, further, is not applied in the calculation of net migration figures for policy purposes by our main competitors in the higher education sector—the US, Canada and Australia? Is it not about time that the Government ceased to handicap the most rapidly growing and most promising invisible export sector we have?

My Lords, I fail to understand what the noble Lord and Universities UK are getting at in their objections to us applying proper statistics as agreed by international convention, which is what we follow. If the noble Lord is suggesting that by changing the way we count the statistics, we will make life easier for universities, again I fail to understand him. I do not see why they are discouraging undergraduates from coming to this country. All we require of the students is that they show an ability to speak English and that they have an offer of a place at a university in the United Kingdom. The statistics simply do not come into it, so fiddling with them would discourage students because it would imply that probably the only subject they ought to come here to study would be statistics.

Can my noble friend assure the House that nothing is being done now that would in any way damage or reduce the substantial economic benefit that bona fide foreign students bring to this country, in particular to our universities, colleges and academies where the English language is taught? It is important that this should continue unabated.

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend, and we want to continue to encourage them to come here. I do not see why changing the statistics is going to discourage them. We have, in fact, seen an increase in the number of students who come to reputable and proper universities, and a reduction in the number of those who come to bogus colleges and schools, who come here not to learn but to work.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Britain is regarded by foreign students outside the EEC as a no-go area? I see that that is the case when I visit the United States and see foreign students there. Is he also aware that the Home Office has completely inadequate data on what universities students go to when they enter this country, what courses they take, and what happens to them? Is it not about time that the Home Office made much better preparation of these data so that we can police this better?

My Lords, what the noble Lord says is complete nonsense. Britain is not seen as a no-go area; we are seeing an increase in the number of students coming here to reputable universities. If this was a no-go area there would be a decrease in the numbers of students.

My Lords, now that the Government have taken the steps to deal with bogus students, what steps are being taken to encourage bona fide and genuine students to come to the UK, and who is taking responsibility for that?

My Lords, it is for the universities themselves to encourage people to come to them. As I have put it on a number of occasions, we want to control the bogus students. We have not seen a reduction in the number of proper students who come to proper universities. We have, in fact, seen an increase over the years, and I do not see why any changes we make to the way in which we count our immigration statistics are likely to discourage people from coming to this country.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware, as the House is aware, that 60% of overseas migrants to this country are students, and the Government are concerned to cap the number of overseas foreign migrants to this country. However, the Minister will surely also be aware of his own Home Office research of November 2010, which shows, as other contributors to your Lordships’ debate have said today, that 96% of students who are registered for degrees at bona fide universities return home at the end of their course. We are talking not about statistics here but about policy. Can the Minister therefore not put students who apply for bona fide degrees, and all the gains between this country and their home countries, in a different stream from the Government’s efforts to cap foreign migrants who come to this country?

That is what the Question is about, and I am answering it in those terms. We are talking about the statistics and how we measure the number of migrants coming here. Merely changing the way that we count those immigrants does not affect students coming into this country. I simply do not see how the way in which we count overseas students makes any difference to the decision made by them as to whether they come here. The only restriction we impose on them is that they have to speak English and need an offer of a place at that university.

My Lords, given the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, is he aware of the OECD definition of permanent migration, which has a subset that specifically excludes international students? On this basis, does the Minister agree that the UK should follow the example of the USA, Canada and Australia, all of which use this subcategory from the overall immigration numbers?

We should follow the United States, Australia and other countries that the noble Baroness mentioned, and stick with the United Nations measures, and that is what we will do.