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Volume 753: debated on Monday 12 May 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to remove international students from the headline immigration figures.

My Lords, the Government publish immigration statistics broken down by category. The number of student immigrants may therefore be easily distinguished from other migrants. The independent Office for National Statistics’ net migration statistics include students, and the Government have no plans to remove them. This makes no difference to the policy, which is that there is no cap and genuine international students are welcome.

My Lords, the message must be clear to international students: we want you and we welcome you. Can my noble friend the Minister assure the House that the Government are doing everything to ensure that, when it comes to global higher education, the brightest and the best choose Britain?

I think that the whole House will agree with those sentiments. It is certainly the Government’s policy, and I hope that it will be possible to persuade universities and Universities UK to take this opportunity to improve our position as the second provider of higher education to the world student population. This is a great opportunity for us, and we need to be united in sending that message.

My Lords, do the Government fully understand the damage that is being done? I speak as chancellor of the University of Leeds. I refer not only to the damage in fees, which is well over £1 million or £1.5 million—a lot to any university—but to the fact that we are excluding more than 23% of people from China and India. Does the Minister understand the value of those contacts, their value to our future negotiations, prosperity and culture and the lessening of value of our academic status in the world by this policy?

The noble Lord will know that there is no cap on numbers. We welcome the brightest and the best, and I wish that noble Lords would take that on board and persuade those universities where they have responsibility that this is the Government’s policy. If I may say to the noble Lord, visa applications from students sponsored by universities increased by 7% in 2013, and applications from students going to Russell group universities rose by 11%. That is not an industry that is suffering as a result of government policy; it is an industry that is taking advantage of government policy to show what a good offer we have for students.

My Lords, I warmly welcome the Government’s wish to make it clear that overseas students are extremely welcome. However, I have two questions for the Minister. First, why do we need to continue to include international students in our overall immigration figures when Canada, Australia, the United States and our other major rivals see no need to do that given that these are not migrants but visitors who will return home? Secondly, what is the effect of a reduction in overseas students on our crucial STEM courses—that is, courses on science, technology, engineering and computing—as many of those courses are at risk if they do not retain, and increase, the present proportion of overseas students?

My Lords, I must correct my noble friend on a matter of fact in that all our major competitors, including the US and Australia, count students as migrants. I hope I may explain why that is the case. In 2013, 115,000 people who came to the UK as students extended their stay—70,000 or so, or 62%, for further study and 38,000 for work. The Tier 4 system offers flexibility to allow these high-value individuals to extend their visa. However, not to include them as immigrants is against the practice in other competitor countries and is against our interests in making sure that we know who is here, why they are here and what they are doing when they are here.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that this is not a problem of statistics or the presentation of statistics? I entirely agree with his very welcome statement of the Government’s intentions but will he add just a few words—that in future the Government do not intend to treat students as immigrants for public policy purposes?

I have to make it clear that we treat them as immigrants for statistical purposes. The point of my argument is that students come here not just for six months or so but to pursue a course of study and, following that course of study, they go on to do other things. We delude ourselves if we think this is an alternative track that we can separate out from migration in general. The point I have made is that it makes no difference to our policy position, which is that the brightest and best should come here. I did not answer my noble friend’s question on STEM. Of course, STEM subjects are important. That is why STEM students from China went up by 7%, those from Malaysia by 1% and those from Hong Kong by 20% between 2011 and 2013. We are at one on this and I wish that noble Lords would accept the Government’s good faith in that regard.

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House with regard to a major problem that we all experienced in the House of Commons for many years of students signing up to study at not very reputable places and then disappearing? Is that problem over?

Yes, my Lords. As my noble friend will know, institutions which were guilty of that practice are no longer able to sponsor students. I accept that universities are acting in good faith in conducting their responsibilities in this regard. All I am saying is that the Government’s position is that we want to back them in making sure that we tell the world what a good offer we have in this country for students.

Is not the problem that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is actively trying to make sure that many students come here but the Home Office is doing its best to make sure that they do not get in? This has been exemplified by the warm words said by the Minister today, which are simply not believed in many of the places that traditionally have sent students here. What is he going to do to go on the front foot and get out there and persuade people that Britain is indeed open for business and that our education system is something that they should be joining?

I do not think that the noble Lord would have any doubts as to my good faith in this matter, and I am sure that that is true of most noble Lords because it is not the first time that we have discussed this issue. Indeed, it has been a theme over the past 12 months since the committee reported to the House. I am anxious to join noble Lords who have responsibility within universities in making it clear that the Home Office policy is not about making it difficult for these people to be here; it is about facilitating their studies and encouraging them to do so. As the noble Lord will know, during the passage of the Immigration Bill through this House we debated this very issue and I said that I hoped to meet Universities UK to talk about it, and that remains my intention.