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House of Lords Hansard
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Universities: European Union Students
15 March 2017
Volume 779

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to give guidance to students from other European Union member states wishing to commence study at United Kingdom universities in 2018-19 about the costs of their studies and their eligibility to access student loans.

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My Lords, EU students make an important contribution to our universities and we want that to continue. Existing student finance rules on fees and student support for eligible EU students who either are currently studying or will be beginning courses in the academic year 2017-18 will remain in force until students finish their courses. Applications for 2018-19 do not open until this September and we are working to ensure that students applying have information well in advance of this date.

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My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer but I really do not think it is good enough. Universities—including Bath and Oxford, where I declare an interest—need to plan long term. There is clear evidence from UCAS, the BMA and others that student applications from the EU are going down this year. Prospective EU students for 2018 are already considering their options; without certainty about fees and student loans, they will look elsewhere. When will the Government say that they will extend current transitional arrangements? I urge them to make it soon.

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The noble Baroness makes the important point that there are uncertainties arising from Brexit, but the Government have moved rapidly to give assurances to this sector. Within five days of the referendum result being announced we gave assurances on the 2016-17 year, then we followed up in October 2016 with assurances for the 2017-18 year students. We have also provided similar assurances that EU nationals starting courses in 2016-17 and 2017-18 remain eligible for Research Council postgraduate support. As I have said, we will ensure that students starting in 2018-19 have the information well in advance.

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My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall; I think that the Government could be doing a bit more here. It is not just overseas students who need reassurance—staff and lecturers and their families who may move here need some certainty. What we are doing for them?

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My noble friend is absolutely right and, on the statistics for 2015-16, there were 33,700 EU national academic staff at UK higher education institutions, accounting for around 17% of the total academic workforce—so it is an important point. The Prime Minister has been clear that we want to guarantee rights for EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU as early as we can. Our European partners agree with this and, as my noble friend Lord Bridges said the other day,

“the Polish Prime Minister has said: ‘Of course, these guarantees would need to be reciprocal. It is also important what guarantees the British citizens living and working in other member states of the European Union will have’”.—[Official Report, 13/3/17; col. 1719.]

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My Lords, among the many concerns of present and potential EU students are not just financial considerations but the fear that they may be refused entry back into the UK if they have spent time abroad—on a third-year abroad scheme, say, or other things that take them out of the country for several months. What assurances can the Government give both to current and prospective students that they will be able to travel freely in and out of the UK in the course of their studies?

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The noble Baroness makes a good point. These are reassurances that we are looking to give, and I reassure her further that we are maintaining our dialogue with the sector about the risks and the opportunities that Brexit presents. Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities, has established a high-level stakeholder working group on the EU exit for universities, research and innovation.

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My Lords, the noble Viscount will be aware that the regulations abolishing the bursary system for nurses in the UK, including places for students from the European Union, have been laid on the Table of this House. The first indication is that there is a 23% fall in applications, and, on the specialist courses, that the number of applications from European Union countries is down by 95%. If by the following year these figures prove to be as dismal as they seem, will the Government promise that they will look again at the whole bursary scheme for nurses?

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The noble Lord is correct on the figures. They are somewhat as expected. Data published by UCAS for nursing applications from English domiciled applicants show a dip of around 23%, so he is correct. However, at a national level, these figures will still allow the NHS in England to fill the 20,000 or so student nursing training places, assuming that students meet the entry requirements of their offer from their course provider.

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But, my Lords, there is concern throughout the academic community, as my noble friend made clear a moment or two ago. What plans do my noble friend and his ministerial colleagues have to meet some of the 35 heads of Oxford colleges and the vice-chancellor, who wrote to express this concern on Monday of this week?

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I have read that letter in the Times. I will certainly need to write to my noble friend on what plans there are to meet them. However, I am sure that Jo Johnson is very much aware of this.

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My Lords, could the noble Viscount comment on the issue that has been raised, and was also raised within the question asked by my noble friend—namely, who actually runs the admissions system for universities in this country? Is it his department or is it the Home Office, given that the Home Office runs independent interviews of all persons selected in-country, imposes penalties if students who are recruited do not complete their courses and imposes quotas on the number of persons on a course? The Minister always says that there is no limit on the number of overseas students but it seems to me that the Home Office has one. Is that correct?

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The Department for Education takes the lead on this. However, as the noble Lord would expect, there are cross-departmental links with the Home Office, and that will continue.

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My Lords, I declare an interest as the chancellor of the University of St Andrews, of which the noble Viscount is a distinguished graduate. May I invite him to pay an early visit to his alma mater so that he can hear for himself the anxieties and apprehensions of both staff and students at the failure of the Government to specify precisely what steps they are going to take to preserve the quality of university education after Brexit?

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I would be delighted to take up the noble Lord’s offer and visit my alma mater again. I am aware of the concerns expressed not just in Scotland but south of the border. Again, my honourable friend in the other place is taking note of all the concerns expressed.

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My Lords, the last figure I saw of the estimates of student loans likely to have to be written off was a pretty horrific £45 billion. What is the Government’s present estimate?

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I will need to write to my noble friend to give that figure.