My Lords, the Government will shortly be seeking views on a range of proposals to reform the visa system for international students. Like other migrant groups in the UK, international students use public services, contribute to population levels and affect local communities. The independent Office for National Statistics therefore includes international students in its net migration calculations, following international best practice in this regard.
My Lords, international students are one of the most gleaming gems in the United Kingdom’s soft power crown. My noble friend knows that I believe they should be removed from the immigration figures, because there would only be an upside to such a move.
I certainly know my noble friend’s feelings on this matter—in fact, I think I know the House’s feeling, having answered this question several times—and I was very pleased to have a discussion with him the other day. The four institutions chosen were Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Imperial College London, which were selected due to their consistently low level of visa refusals. But the pilot is intentionally narrow in scope in order that its outcomes against the stated objectives can be monitored, and to minimise the risk of unintended consequences. If the pilot is successful we will consider rolling it out more widely.
My Lords, has not the Foreign Secretary described the Government’s policy in this area as totally crazy and pointed to the fact that the number of Indian students in our universities has roughly halved? He has called for post-study work visas to be restored, and has asked for reassurances to be given to the Indian Government and for international students to be removed from the total of recorded immigration, because it is completely misleading. Would the Minister like to commend the wise words of a sometimes misrepresented colleague?
My Lords, I do not know who is misrepresenting who but I do not feel that I can speak for the Foreign Secretary. In fact, sometimes I do not know if the Foreign Secretary speaks for others. It is indeed true that Indian student numbers have gone down, but Chinese student numbers have gone up. Indeed, figures for the Russell Group have gone up.
My Lords, is not the figure of tens of thousands as a cap on immigration entirely arbitrary? If we accept the importance of international students, they should be taken out of that target. That does not mean taking them out of the OECD numbers, but it does mean that we could look again at the international numbers. I declare my interests as listed in the register.
My Lords, there is no cap on the number of students who come here. As long as students are compliant with immigration rules, they should make only a very limited contribution to the migration numbers. The Government’s ultimate goal is to get migration numbers down to the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands, but that will take time.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the student situation has moved on? The problem has always been the 70,000 for whom there is no evidence of departure. That is roughly half the size of the British Army. Therefore, the issue has to be tackled. However, exit checks are coming into force and fairly soon we will have a much better handle on how many are overstaying. That, I suggest, will make it much easier to deal with the policy changes that a number of noble Lords have suggested.
The noble Lord is right to bring up exit checks. The Home Office continues to analyse and assess the element of the exit check data which has been in place since April last year in relation to specific cohorts, in order to understand the extent to which the estimates provided are statistically robust. That level of detail is not yet available but the noble Lord is right to raise this issue.
We do not believe that international students should be included in the Government’s target to reduce migration to tens of thousands. Given that many people may think that over, say, a five-year period the number of international students coming to study in the UK would roughly match the number of such students departing the country in accordance with the terms of their visa, thus having little impact on the net migration figure over that period, can the Government tell us—I fear the answer will be no—the number of international students who came to study in the UK last year? Based on previous experience, how many of those students are likely to overstay their visa, or any authorised extension to stay, and remain in this country after the date by which they should have left? One would assume that the Government know the answer to that question.
My Lords, I think that that was several questions. However, the National Audit Office reported that in 2009-10, up to 50,000 international students may have come to work, not study, and, before our changes, international student visa extensions were running at more than 100,000 a year, with some serial students renewing their leave repeatedly for many years.
My Lords, does the Minister think that areas that have been left behind are not relevant here? I remind her of somewhere she and I know well: Sunderland. Its university has recently had to make significant cutbacks, which means less money in the local economy and many local people losing their jobs. One of the reasons for that is its inability to get visas, particularly for India but also for other countries from where it has historically had significant numbers of students, particularly in pharmacy and engineering.
My Lords, I repeat: there is no cap on the number of international students who come here. I take the noble Baroness’s point, and I appreciate the problems some universities face in keeping student numbers up. However, others, such as the Russell Group universities, have of course seen their applications increase.