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Brexit: EU Students’ Tuition Fees

Volume 797: debated on Monday 29 April 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my honourable friend Chris Skidmore, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, in response to an Urgent Question.

“Mr Speaker, the Government have repeatedly made clear that we absolutely value international exchange and collaboration in education and training as part of our vision for a global Britain. We believe that the UK and European countries should continue to give young people and students the chance to benefit from each other’s world leading universities post exit.

Over the weekend, the media reported on a leaked Cabinet document discussing government policy regarding EU student access to finance products for the 2020-21 academic year and beyond. At this time, I wish to tell the House that no decision has been made on continued access to student finance for EU students. Discussions at Cabinet level are ongoing and should remain confidential. I will make no comment on this apparent leak, which is deeply regrettable.

Students from the EU make a vital contribution to the university sector. It is testament to the quality and reputation of our higher education system that so many students from abroad choose to come and study here. As I stated earlier, the numbers are up 3.8% for EU students since 2017 and up 4.9% for non-EU students since July 2017. In July 2018, we announced that students from the European Union starting courses in England in the 2019-20 academic year will continue to be eligible for home fees status, which means that they will be charged the same tuition fees as UK students and have access to tuition fee loans for the duration of their studies. Applications for students studying in academic year 2020-21 open in September 2019. The Government will provide sufficient notice for prospective EU students and the wider higher education sector on fee arrangements ahead of this 2020-21 academic year and for subsequent years, which, as I just stated, will also reflect our future relationship with the European Union and the negotiations on this going forward”.

My Lords, what a miserably thin Statement on such a major subject. It is essential that there is no further delay in the UK Government confirming the fee status for EU students starting courses at English universities in autumn 2020. The recruitment cycle for that academic year is already well under way. Although the Minister said that sufficient notice will be given to students, universities will need at least 18 months’ notice of any change to manage changes in numbers.

With 135,000 EU students in a marketised university sector, any drop-off in numbers caused by inflated tuition fees will have a significant material and financial impact on university finances and their ability to plan for and sustain courses. Does the Minister share my concern that continuing uncertainty will restrict student choice and the ability of English universities to recruit the best students from the EU, as well as have a knock-on impact on the gem that is research in our universities—research ably supported by income brought in from abroad and improved by the quality of EU graduates coming to our universities?

This delay is hurting our universities now and will continue to do so. We cannot permit this to go on unchallenged. Any delay in the certainty of what will happen in 2020 will damage our reputation internationally.

I am pleased that the noble Lord said toward the end of his remarks that the UK university sector is very successful. I want to say just that: its successes are highly regarded around the world, and that explains why more students than ever are coming to UK universities and wanting to study in Britain.

On the noble Lord’s main point, there is no delay. Looking back to last year, for the year 2019-20 the announcement that we made was in July 2018. As I said in my Statement, between now and September 2019 we will make it clear what the plans will be for the year 2020-21.

My Lords, the Minister said that no decision has been made yet. I suppose that this was a leak, but it gives us an opportunity to consider the Government’s thinking on this particular matter. Have they considered the impact of their proposals on the number of students applying to English universities, given that we already know that Cardiff, Reading, Gloucester and Birkbeck have announced redundancies this year? Is now a good time to gamble with our universities’ financial sustainability? How can the Minister convince the House and the public that pulling up the drawbridge against EU students will not backfire spectacularly?

I should say first that the leak is very regrettable, and I do not want to say anything more about that. It is very important that we make the point that the UK remains open to overseas students to study here, including those from the EU. The UK Government value international exchange and collaboration in education and training as part of their vision for a global Britain, so I go back to the point that, while the leak is very regrettable, it does not reflect what the thinking is.

My Lords, will my noble friend talk with his colleagues in government so that an unequivocal Statement can be made very soon? Would he also suggest to the Prime Minister that the appointment of a plumber to the Cabinet is overdue?

I take note of what my noble friend has said and the way that he has put it. I will certainly pass it back. As I have said, this leak is particularly regrettable, and I do not want to say any more about it.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the director of SOAS University of London. I take note of the noble Viscount’s comments about the success of the UK higher education sector. Having travelled extensively in my job and having talked to alumni and prospective students, I can tell him that that success is now in spite of government policy rather than because of it. There is a big difference between rhetoric about global Britain and the actuality on the ground. Brexit and what is happening with visas and other areas of government policy are deeply damaging to the reputation of UK universities. Decisions need to be taken now in respect of tuition fees for EU students. I therefore press the Minister by asking when we can expect an announcement to be made.

I should say first to the noble Baroness that she is right to the extent that Brexit has caused uncertainties and continues to do so. If only we had managed to get the deal across the line, those uncertainties would be a lot less, but that is not the case. Perhaps I may reassure her again that it is absolutely vital that we are able to continue to market the highly valuable university sector in the UK, and we shall certainly continue to do so. On her remarks about the so-called delay, I would like to make the point again that we will be making an announcement to state what the fees will be for the following year. As I have said, last year it was made in July. I am not saying that it will be in July 2019, but it will be made at some point between now and September 2019.

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend will agree that it is a wonderful thing—educationally, socially and culturally—that 135,000 students from Europe are at our universities, along with a further 8,000 students from the rest of the world. But is it not different economically, in that students from the rest of the world pay full tuition fees and subsidise British students, whereas students from Europe receive tuition grants, only a small proportion of which are ever repaid, and are therefore subsidised by the British taxpayer? Can he explain what possible reasons, once we have left the EU, there should be for us charging people from poor countries to come to our universities but offering loans that are likely never to be repaid if they come from rich countries in Europe?

I do not want to be drawn into answering the specific question asked by my noble friend, but perhaps I may say that, in 2017-18, 55,700 EU-domiciled students were given loans by the Student Loans Company; 88% of them were for full-time undergraduates. These students accounted for 5% of all students receiving loans in 2017-18. Obviously, looking to the future with the uncertainties, we are not there yet. I very much take note of what my noble friend has said.

My Lords, the Minister suggested earlier that if the withdrawal agreement had gone through we would not have this uncertainty, but that was only going to take us to the end of 2020. Do the Government have a long-term vision for higher education? Do they have a vision for the role of European and international students? Further, as the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, said, do they understand that we are now in a situation where international students are coming to this country in spite of the Government’s policy, not because of it? I declare an interest as I am employed by Cambridge University.

The noble Baroness will know perfectly well that we do indeed have a strategy for the case where there is a deal and that there is also a strategy for no deal. There has been a lot of no-deal planning. She will also know that we published fairly recently the International Education Strategy.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what calculations the Government have made in considering this policy? Have they looked at the differential effect on different universities of removing home status tuition fees for European students? Many universities do not have many EU students; others have a large number. What steps will the Government take to support universities that have large numbers and are likely to lose them and hence find themselves in some difficulty? Secondly, will he say what the effect may be on British students wishing to study in European Union countries, who may well be charged very high fees in return?

On the second question, we are not there yet in understanding the status of the UK students; we want to be sure there are proper reciprocal arrangements in place. The noble Baroness will know that there are twice as many students coming in from the EU as UK students going to the EU.

My Lords, my noble friend has made clear, even if he has not said so, that the Government intend to implement the withdrawal agreement. In doing so, clearly we would extend the availability of domestic fee status to EU students in 2020. Should we be unable to do so, can my noble friend tell the House whether the Government have taken the powers—I do not recall them doing so—or intend to take the powers to enter into bilateral agreements with other EU countries for a reciprocal arrangement of the kind that replicates the current system?

My noble friend makes an important point about what the future holds. My understanding is that, looking ahead, yes, we would be in discussions with the individual 27 countries.