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Higher Education: Overseas Students

Volume 758: debated on Monday 19 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on students, universities and international relations of requiring overseas students to leave the United Kingdom immediately upon graduating.

My Lords, our reforms have clamped down on the student migration abuse allowed under the last Government, while ensuring that our excellent universities continue to attract the brightest and best students. Ensuring that immigrants leave at the end of their visa is just as important as controlling who comes here to study in the first place.

My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister used the term “abuse” in this context. There has been much criticism, including by eminent businesspeople and economists, about,

“shutting the door on some of the very individuals who help the UK’s unique global service economy to thrive”,

to use the words of the British Chambers of Commerce. I tabled the Question in the Recess, when the proposal referred to appeared from the Home Office—I am glad that it seems not to be making progress—but can the Minister tell us what current Conservative thinking is on visas for new graduates?

I can certainly inform my noble friend what government thinking is on the position. In the same spirit, I reflect that it seemed to be the position of her party that we ought to count people in and count them out. Last year we counted 121,000 students in and 51,000 out. That leaves 70,000 people who were here without an appropriate visa, and we think that that is wrong. If you are here on a study visa, you should be studying. You should not be working. If you want to come here to work, you are very welcome but you ought to apply for the right visa to uphold that.

My Lords, it is of course entirely appropriate to ensure that the administration of student visas is being carried out effectively, but that should not diminish the contribution that overseas students make to this country culturally, academically and financially. There are examples all over the world of economies that benefit from overseas students not just when they are studying but from the contribution that they can make following graduation. Will the Government drop this plan to limit the access of overseas students to the United Kingdom after they complete their studies, and will they look at proper examples elsewhere in the world where people stay on, contribute to entrepreneurial activity and eventually return home to help to develop the economies of the countries they came from in the first place?

Let me underscore that absolute commitment. When people are coming here to study, they are coming to invest in the UK and they will be welcome. There is no cap on students coming to the UK, provided that they are bona fide students in bona fide universities and they have the funds necessary to complete their studies. We are talking about tier 4, which is the student visa, and whether people ought to be able to stay on. There are some examples of abuse of that system under the previous Government, and we are trying to tighten up on that by simply saying that they ought to have an appropriate visa. We have opened up new routes through tier 2 and tier 1 particularly to entrepreneurs and those in high-skilled occupations. They will continue to be welcome in this country, as in others around the world.

My Lords, as a member of the UCL Council, may I say how delighted I am that the Chancellor scotched the rumours before Christmas about further curtailment of the post-study work route? At London First, we have again issued a report showing how important the relationship with emerging economies is. Is the Minister aware of a study by Loughborough University which showed that nearly half of international students thought that the post-study work route was an important or the most important factor in deciding whether to study in the UK? Will he consider reinstating the two-year post-study work route for postgraduates and STEM graduates?

STEM graduates—graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—are certainly in demand. They will have no problem, if they have a bona fide employer, in meeting the criteria for tier 2, so there is no problem in ensuring that that opportunity will remain open. We want to welcome them. The question is whether 100,000 people ought to be able to stay on, as was the case before, without any limitations, doing jobs as baristas or making pizza deliveries. That is in no way to diminish the value of those jobs, but simply to say that that is not making best use of their degree and that they are jobs which could be provided to people who are here legally in the domestic market.

Does the Minister agree that there are two areas where the ability to stay on for two years after completing one’s graduation is of great significance? One is adding to scientific teams, where the addition of a graduate who stays on for the time being to work on a team in an area such as cancer research is vital. The other vital area is that in the past students studying medicine have stayed on and worked in A&E before they returned to their own countries. That does them well because they gain experience; it does us well because it makes it easier to get a quick response in A&E.

I totally agree with my noble friend. Those are exactly the types of profession where we want to see more places occupied by highly skilled and qualified graduates in this country. They would have no problem securing employment and meeting the criteria under the tier 2 provisions in either of those examples. Information released last week on the number of students in the past academic year showed that the number of postgraduate students staying on for research had risen by 9%, which we should all welcome.

My Lords, the noble Lord has tried hard to reassure your Lordships’ House on the Government’s policy here. Obviously, no one wants there to be abuse of the system, but the noble Lord must understand that there is a great deal of doubt whether the Home Secretary even tries to understand the benefit and the value of overseas students to the UK for both universities and the economy. The plan to require all students to return immediately would, as the noble Lord has heard, lose the talents of doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs to the UK economy and UK society. If the Home Secretary cannot even convince her Conservative colleagues in the Cabinet of that policy, surely it is time to think again. I ask the noble Lord to take a message back to the Home Secretary: can we have less rhetoric and more practical common sense?

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is absolutely committed to opening the doors to genuine students, but not to the bogus students that we were talking about before. When she spoke, it was about a policy that was in the Conservative Party manifesto on page 21, which is that the best way to ensure that we keep a grip on the fact that people are here on the appropriate visas is through them returning to their country once they have completed their study visa and then reapplying for a work visa. That is not the position now. The position now is that they can do that in country. We encourage people to do so where they have high-skill jobs or they want to stay here to set up a business.

My Lords, will the Minister explain how he can be so sure how many students return when we have no proper border controls on people leaving this country? Does he not agree that forcing students who have completed their studies to go back to their home—at very considerable expense to themselves—before reapplying to come here is an astonishing way to try to fill that lacuna?

The noble Lord is sharp, as ever, in spotting the issue. We will have exit checks in place by the end of this Parliament, as was promised. Of the figure which I gave—about 70,000 people going missing—some of those will have reapplied to go onto the tier 4 system. Some of them will be here and working illegally. The point is that at the moment we do not know. If we counted them in and counted them out and made sure they were on the appropriate visa, we would be able to know.

In his first Answer the Minister spoke of a policy to attract “the brightest and best” to study in our higher education institutions. Does that mean that the policy is to attract academic high fliers and people of outstanding personal virtue? I do not think that is the limit of the policy, is it? What does he mean by the phrase “the brightest and best”, which Home Office Ministers invariably use when talking about this subject?

It simply reflects that such is the quality of education institutions in this country that they attract some of “the brightest and best” academic and skilled people from around the world. We want to continue to ensure that they do that and, in so doing, contribute to the success of the growing British economy.

Given the Government’s ambition to make this country the best place in which to practise science, will the Minister tell us whether they have heeded the warning from Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society, that the present anti-immigration rhetoric coming from some Members is damaging the ability of this country to recruit leading scientists?

That is all the more reason why we need to ensure that we give a warm welcome and send out a very clear message to those people that we want to come to this country to study and to contribute to the economy that we will not stand by and see our system abused by people who do not want to come here and study but instead want to come here to work.

My Lords, is it possible to distinguish among non-scientists—people like me—who come to this country to study and then stay on? Non-scientists may not find immediate access to jobs but very often, in areas like post-war reconstruction, they have a great deal to contribute. I would have been very sorry if I had been sent home and not allowed to sit in your Lordships’ House.

Exactly, and that is another fine example of how the system works. We want to encourage people. The system is far wider than students of science and technology. We simply give an example of those as people who we particularly want to stay on and contribute to the workforce and the economy, but of course there is a wider cultural benefit and value in having that interchange between people of different nationalities more widely in the arts and other subjects across our universities.