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International Students: Post-study Visa

Volume 762: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider reintroducing a post-study visa for international students studying at bona fide higher education institutions in the United Kingdom.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so declare my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, the UK continues to have an excellent offer for international graduates wishing to undertake skilled work in the UK after their studies. There is no limit to the number of students who can remain, if they secure a graduate job. The Government have no plans to reintroduce the previous post-study work route, which saw large numbers of fraudulent applications from graduates who remained unemployed or in low-skilled work.

My Lords, there is an economic imperative: we are pretty much at full employment. We do not just need to attract the brightest and the best from around the world to come to study in the United Kingdom, we also want them to stay and play their part, be economically active and then, when they go home, be great ambassadors for the United Kingdom—what a fabulous example of soft power. Does my noble friend agree that we need to focus on and grasp this economic opportunity, and will he also agree to meet with me and other interested Peers to discuss how we may improve the current situation?

I am, of course, very happy to meet with my noble friend on this important issue. I agree totally with him that the offer that we have for international students plays a significant part in our economy. They bring experience and investment into our universities. However, I think that there is a problem with the messages that we send to students. In some parts of the world, people say that we put a limit on the number of students but there is no limit on the number of students to bona fide universities. They say that we send out a message that they are not welcome to stay, but we have said that they can stay, providing they are in a graduate-level job, an internship or a doctoral programme; they are genuinely looking for work; or if they are setting up a business. That is the right balance, but we have got to get that message out there and I am happy to meet with my noble friend to discuss how we do that.

My Lords, the Royal College of Art, a postgraduate institution in which I declare an interest, launches more new student start-ups than any other UK university. This year, however, its most innovative, international social entrepreneurs and inventors, its design engineers and healthcare innovators, who would have set up UK businesses upon graduation, will now return home instead. Can the Minister begin to assess the loss of enterprise and competitiveness of ending most—and it is most—tier 1 visas for budding entrepreneurs, and also the impact of skill shortages on specialist companies reluctant to deal with the increased red tape and hurdles of tier 2 visas?

We have a specific tier 1 graduate entrepreneur visa whereby people are encouraged to stay, particularly if they are working in the area of technology, which the noble Baroness is talking about. We have systems whereby people are given 12 months to explore where they can do, in particular, a doctorate degree. I would be very interested to discuss further with the noble Baroness why people are making that decision when the rules have been designed so that the brightest and best can stay here and contribute to the UK economy.

Does the Minister agree that the time has now clearly come for Her Majesty’s Government to say that the number of non-EU students who come to our shores every year—well over 100,000—and whose contribution, culturally and economically, is massive, should be taken entirely out of the immigration equation? Does he also agree that it is only by acting in that simple, straightforward way that the Prime Minister’s pledge that immigration would be reduced below 100,000 can be put properly to the test?

Obviously I respect what the noble Lord says, but we follow the UN guidelines on this. The ONS also follows them when it is producing the statistics, and they are used in the US, Australia and Canada on pretty much the same basis—that is, students are included in the figures. Of course, speaking as a Home Office Minister responsible in your Lordships’ House for answering questions on immigration, it would be very convenient if we could lift 140,000 or so out of the statistics, but that would do nothing to tackle the real problem. Last year 135,000 students came here and only 44,000 left, so 91,000 remain. We cannot be serious about immigration without tackling that problem.

What discussions have the Government had directly with universities to determine from them what impact the closure of the visa route has had on their intake of non-European overseas students?

I am very happy to meet representatives of the universities. In fact, earlier this year the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration produced a very helpful report entitled UK Post Study Work Opportunities for International Students, which drew on evidence from universities. I have read it, and it may be helpful to follow it up with universities to make sure that we get the message out on what we are selling and what they should be selling—that is, world-class education, in which we specialise, not low-skilled employment.

My Lords, some time ago, as a member of a digital study that we were doing in this House, a group of us went to Imperial College. We were told categorically by graduate students there that they would have to leave within two or three months of finalising their studies. The Minister is saying that they do not have to do that, so why do we not get that message across? I am hearing that from students everywhere, so they are getting misinformation or a lack of information. I think that it would be to the benefit of us all to get that message across.

Imperial College is a world-leading university and we are very proud of it. I want to be clear on the specific point that my noble friend made. If someone is not going into a graduate-level job, they will have four months following the completion of their course to look for work. If they do not do that but are able to find graduate-level employment, they are able to apply for a tier 2 visa. If they secure a temporary internship, they can stay for 12 months. If they are completing a doctorate, they can stay for 12 months, and if they are setting up a business, they are particularly welcome and can stay longer.

My Lords, in the field of science there is no question but that a student is at his most productive and most useful immediately after completing his doctorate. Practically speaking, we are currently training what will be our opposition over the next 10 years, because these graduates are going back to their own countries and developing technology which would be highly useful to the British economy. Surely we need to try to do something about that.

That is a fair point, and as regards STEM subjects, the noble Lord is absolutely right. We also need to remember that there is a development point. Due to the world-class education that we have, many people come to this country from less-developed economies. The idea of them taking their skills and experiences of British life and culture back to those countries is also an incredibly important part of the soft power that my noble friend Lord Holmes began his Question with.

Will my noble friend reflect for a moment and consider the wisdom of putting in writing for every higher education institution what he said to this House this afternoon, so that all potential graduates know what the position will truly be when they graduate?

Obviously my ministerial colleague has responsibility for universities within BIS. I will certainly talk with him, and also with my honourable friend at the Home Office, James Brokenshire, who has responsibility for this area there, and see if we can do just that.