Skip to main content

International Higher Education Students

Volume 828: debated on Tuesday 21 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to arrest the decline in the United Kingdom’s global market share in international higher education students, which fell from 11 per cent in 2008 to eight per cent in 2019.

My Lords, in 2019 we published the International Education Strategy, which commits to hosting at least 600,000 international students per year by 2030. We have met that for two consecutive years, with nearly 680,000 studying here in 2021-22—a 37% increase on 2019 and almost double the number in 2008. While the international student market is becoming more competitive, the absolute number continues to grow, which is testament to the global reputation of our higher education sector.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Three years ago, after the Government had removed all post-study work opportunities and rolled out the then Home Secretary’s policies of an unwelcoming environment, the UK slipped from second to third among English-speaking destinations for international students, with Australia overtaking us. The international education strategy to which she has referred was a response to the failure of those policies. While it has indeed reversed the deadline, Universities UK is now saying that new government proposals will restrict its ability to recruit international students. International students make a huge contribution to the economy, and surely the Government need to make more of promoting the UK as a welcoming and accessible destination for study and post study. Is it not the case that the Minister cannot deny that the Government’s policy of restricting student visas will have the opposite effect?

I really do not recognise what the noble Lord is saying. In 2019, we had 496,000 international students coming to this country; last year, there were 679,000. We have introduced a graduate route, which allows international students who are graduates to work in this country. We have increased our educational exports from this area from £19 billion to £25.6 billion and are heading to our target of £35 billion.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should have a diverse international student population in our universities, and is she not concerned that, of the 590,000 non-EU students, those from China, India and Nigeria dominate? Is she concerned about the 120,000 Chinese students and maybe their effect on security?

The Government absolutely agree that we need a diverse population of international students. The noble Lord mentions India and Nigeria; those were two of the countries that were specifically targeted in our International Education Strategy, and we are delighted to see how successful it has been.

My Lords, it is not just international students who are important to our universities but international research funding. In this context, does the Minister agree with the analysis that shows that, in the two oldest universities in this country, Oxford and Cambridge—I declare an interest as a retired Oxford professor—funding from the European Union has fallen from £130 million a year to £1 million a year? What is the Government’s assessment of the impact of this loss of £129 million a year, and what are the Government going to do about it?

I cannot argue with the noble Lord’s figures; I do not have them directly in front of me. Obviously, the balance in the relationship between government and universities, as autonomous institutions, is a delicate one, which both sides respect. He will be aware that we are delighted at the EU’s recent openness to working with us on the Horizon programme.

My Lords, would my noble friend care to reflect on the fact that in Scotland, which has St Andrews as the oldest university, the failure of the Scottish Government to have tuition fees for Scottish students has meant that there are no places for Scottish students, and the universities are having to raise the money by having more international students, at the expense of youngsters in Scotland?

I cannot really comment on the experience of youngsters in Scotland. I can say that, from our perspective in England, we believe that the presence of international students is a great source of soft power for the nation—both those in our universities here and the more than 500,000 students who study in British universities overseas.

I am deeply grateful to the House for its delayed courtesy.

It is surely lamentable that the number of university students from, particularly, European universities, has declined in department after department. I know from my experience how enormously enriching the Erasmus scheme, for example, was. It was invented by a fellow Welshman, Hywel Ceri Jones, and we are deeply grateful for it. Furthermore, as has been said, university students from elsewhere contribute enormously to the local economy in a variety of ways. Can we not try to reverse this trend by a very much more European-focused policy in our universities, in the hope of restoring what has been lost, perhaps never to return?

I am not sure that I agree entirely with the noble Lord. We are interested in a diversity of students from different parts of the world. I am not clear from the noble Lord’s question what is particular about European students. All our international students bring cultural diversity. We welcome students from Europe as we welcome students from all parts of the world, and all contribute enormously to our economic well-being.

My Lords, international students certainly enrich our academic community, but there is a danger that they can displace UK students, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, because of the much higher fees that can be charged to them. This is a particular issue in veterinary science, in which I declare my interests. The core funding there from government is inadequate to fund the full course. Over 20% of the graduates that we produce in our British veterinary schools now are overseas students who are not destined to work in the UK workforce, at a time when we have a desperate shortage of vets. Can His Majesty’s Government please look at this issue?

Does the Minister agree that it is regrettable that universities, and particularly their international students, increasingly are seen by some vocal commentators as a convenient political battlefield rather than existing for the public good? Given reports that the Government are considering reforming migration rules for international students, can the Minister confirm whether a comprehensive impact assessment has been conducted around the proposed changes?

Quite obviously, in all areas of policy there are different aspects which we would consider in great detail—the economic impact, our international soft power, which I mentioned, and a number of others.

My Lords, my noble friend has already mentioned two of the target countries in the Government’s strategy—India and Nigeria. Can the Minister explain why Saudi Arabia is one of the five target countries and whether diversification could not go a little further? I refer to my interests as laid out in the register.

The Government are looking at the range of countries that we should prioritise beyond our initial focus. Saudi Arabia is obviously an important strategic partner for us on many levels.

My Lords, can we take it, following the Prime Minister’s brilliant negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol, that we will now be participating fully in the Horizon project?

I think I have already addressed Horizon. My noble friend may be aware that the Secretary of State at DSIT met with the EU’s ambassador to the UK, Pedro Serrano, on 14 March and discussed collaboration in this area. We hope very much that this leads to more positive relationships regarding Horizon.