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Universities: Overseas Students

Volume 740: debated on Monday 5 November 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of current immigration policy on the attractiveness of United Kingdom universities to overseas students.

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, the UK continues to make a great offer to international students. Those with an adequate command of the English language and enough money to support themselves can come with no limit on numbers. When they finish, they can stay if they are doing a graduate-level job, again with no limit on numbers. Universities UK has reported that the number of international students continues to rise and UCAS acceptances are up 4%.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The point is that government migration policy threatens to do huge reputational damage to British universities, institutions which bring in some £8 billion in earnings from overseas students. Why cannot the Government adopt the same scheme as our competitor countries, especially the United States and Australia, and list overseas students separately from migration statistics, since we know that almost all overseas students—about 97%—go back to their country of origin?

My Lords, I think it must be agreed throughout the House that the previous system was open to abuse, with too many students just coming here to work rather than to study. The Government have sought to protect our world-class universities while targeting the less compliant new colleges, driving some 500 of the latter off the sponsor register. We want to continue to attract the brightest and best international students who will drive growth in our economy. Most observers would agree that our reforms are no more than common sense. We are not adopting the Australian or American model. We believe that it is right to have these figures as part of general migration although the net migration figure is obviously less than the top line one.

Does the Minister agree with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, that it makes sense to remove student figures from the overall immigration figures as countries like the United States, Canada and Australia do? The Government are creating a rod for their own back. Does the Minister also agree that the treatment of London Metropolitan University’s foreign students was appalling, unfair and unjust? Is that the way that we, a fair and just nation, behave? More importantly, does the Government agree that the signal that it sent out to foreign students around the world is, “Britain does not want us”?

No student who was engaged in a course at London Metropolitan has been asked to leave at this stage. There was serious abuse of the process, despite the UKBA working alongside London Met. The UKBA felt that it could no longer rely on London Met to sponsor students and that is why the permit was withdrawn. As noble Lords will know, there is a judicial review going on and these arguments will, no doubt, be vented there. I am, however, confident that the UKBA made the right decision in this case.

My Lords, perhaps I may tell the Minister that last night I got off a plane from Beijing, where I had been visiting two of the most outstanding and internationally minded universities in China—and that we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Not only are we helping to destroy our own best universities, we are cutting off the contacts we need for future relationships, for future foreign influence and, of course, for future exports. I would therefore beg the Government to reconsider their current position. It is vital that students are excluded from the immigration policy, as they are in Australia, Canada and the United States. We are an exporting and internationally minded nation which is cutting itself off from contact with some of the most outstanding future leaders of the very countries with which we need to work most closely. I ask the Government to reconsider the situation very seriously.

I thank my noble friend for raising this issue because, as she will know, the number of students from China is increasing. Indeed, the number of students from some parts of south-east Asia is increasing enormously: there is a 26% increase in students from Hong Kong and a 10% increase in students from Singapore. I do not believe that a policy which seeks to control this area of immigration in a proper and manageable fashion is in conflict with an education policy which is designed to give an opportunity for our excellent university education to be shared with students from around the world.

My Lords, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich we are seeing a very marked downturn in applications from postgraduate science students from India. This is consistent with evidence from 2010-11 that, when one lifts China out of the figures, there has been a rapid reversal in Britain’s relative attractiveness to overseas students. If the Government are not going to lift students out of the net migration figures, how do they propose to respond to these facts?

I am not sure that the right reverend Prelate is correct in his assumptions. I know that the numbers from the Indian subcontinent are indeed down, but graduate-level jobs are available, and students are able to go on to postgraduate studies. We welcome that. I am therefore not sure that the right reverend Prelate’s reading of this is correct.

My Lords, a recent survey of UK universities has shown that, excluding students from China and Hong Kong, whose numbers continue to increase, the numbers of non-EU students in UK universities decreased in 2011-12 compared with the previous year. Does the Minister have figures in his brief that would illustrate this and, if so, is he prepared to share them with this House? Could he also tell us whether the Government intend to take any measures that might reverse this trend?

Perhaps I can help the noble Viscount with some figures. Up to the year ending December 2011, overall student immigration was 232,000—the second highest year on record. Of those, 180,000 were non-EU nationals, which is almost 60% of total non-EU inflows.