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Student Visas: Pilot Study

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria they used to select universities for the pilot study on student visas announced on 25 July.

My Lords, the four universities chosen to participate in the tier 4 visa pilot—namely, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Imperial College London —were chosen on the basis of their consistently low visa refusal rates.

My Lords, when he was Home Secretary, my noble friend Lord Blunkett and I agreed the Fresh Talent scheme for Scotland in 2003, which introduced a post-study work visa for students graduating from Scottish universities. That scheme, which helped reverse population decline and increased economic activity in Scotland, was never abused. It was extended to the rest of the United Kingdom in 2008, when it was abused elsewhere, and the Government abolished it in 2012. This new pilot scheme directly discriminates against the Scottish university sector and is a slap in the face for Scottish higher education. I ask the Government first, to review the involvement of the Scottish higher education sector in the pilot project and, secondly, to set a threshold which gives universities a standard to meet—and, if they get above it, to include more than these four elite universities in this discriminatory scheme.

My Lords, the scheme may be expanded following the pilot; that has not been decided yet. On population decline in Scotland, I would say to the noble Lord that in fact it is projected that the population of Scotland will increase by 3.1% by 2024.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that given that, despite having no tuition fees, Scottish universities have failed to perform as well as English universities in attracting students from poorer backgrounds, they should concentrate on British students from poorer backgrounds in order to catch up with England?

My noble friend makes a very good point. The uptake of places in English universities has increased for people from lower-income backgrounds, and the Scottish system might have something to learn from our excellent universities.

My Lords, as this appears to be a Scottish day, I declare an interest as chancellor of the University of St Andrews. As has already been pointed out, tuition fees are not available to universities in Scotland. Higher education is devolved but, of course, the issuing of visas is not. For universities in Scotland such as St Andrews, therefore, a ready infusion of foreign students who pay enhanced fees is fundamental to their economies. May we have an assurance that when the results of the pilot scheme are available, account will be taken of the special position of Scottish universities?

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord in his role, because St Andrews is an excellent university. The universities of both England and Scotland want to attract the brightest and best talent from around the world—and they do.

My Lords, will student exchange schemes be at all affected by this? They are wonderful schemes—and I declare an interest in that one of my daughters went on an exchange to Monash from Warwick University. Will those people have any problem in future?

My Lords, student exchange schemes should not be affected by this at all, given that they are in the education system.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that what is really important in post-study work is that the students, or rather the graduates, are required by employers? Would she agree that the change that the Government have made focuses on that and creates a much more effective situation?

I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord’s point; the students entering into employment are doing so in sectors that require their skills.

My Lords, looking at the location of the four universities involved, can I assume that Oxford and Cambridge are representing the north of England? Against what specific criteria will the outcome of the two-year pilot scheme be assessed, when will that assessment be completed and will the results be made public?

That will be determined in due course—and I shall let the noble Lord and the House know in due course. As for those universities being representative of the north, they may be in the sense that many students from the north of England attend those universities.

My Lords, two years ago the then Home Secretary cancelled the visas of around 46,000 students based on a false assessment of English language tests. The immigration upper tribunal court ruled earlier this year that Mrs May’s decision was based on “multiple frailties and shortcomings” and that investigators were unqualified to assess language levels. In the current guidance for the pilot, there is still a reliance on investigators. What assurance can the Minister give the House that investigators have now been trained properly?

There are always lessons to be learned from situations such as this, and I give the noble Baroness every assurance that investigators are trained properly.

I support my noble friend Lord McConnell in what he said earlier. This is exactly the kind of decision where a United Kingdom government department will help towards the break-up of the United Kingdom, and it is an absolute disgrace.

I am not sure that there is a question in there, but I will answer by saying that I disagree with the noble Lord.

I declare an interest in the University of York, one of the northern universities, where the Erasmus exchange programme has been invaluable in providing an understanding across Europeans and teaching languages to students who may not naturally be given to learning languages. We must consider benefits other than the immediate impact—and can we please include the northern universities?

I totally agree that the Erasmus programme has been very helpful to students, and certainly that is something that I shall take back for the noble Baroness.