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International Students

Volume 616: debated on Monday 31 October 2016

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the contribution made by international students to the UK. (906877)

I am in regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Education on all aspects of policy relating to international students. We will shortly be launching a consultation on changes to the non-EU work and study migration routes. I encourage all interested parties to participate.

The Government have previously suggested that tens of thousands of international students break the terms of their visa by overstaying. We also know, however, that international students contribute almost £11 billion to the UK economy and that about 30% of university revenues come from non-EU international students. Analysis conducted by the Home Secretary’s own Department shows that only 1% of international students break the terms of their visa arrangements. Will she confirm that the figure is 1% and, if so, what steps will she take to encourage more international students who are a benefit to our economy and our universities, particularly in places such as the north-east of England?

The hon. Gentleman is right. Student immigration plays an important role in supporting our world-class university system, which is a great part of the British economy in terms of exports. He refers to some very encouraging work from my Department about getting a more precise hold on the number of those who overstay. That work is at an early stage, so I would not put too much weight on it yet. We are, however, watching it carefully and hope it will be able to give us more confidence in the numbers of students who leave as well as arrive.

Is it not the case that post-Brexit we can design a student visa system that will attract the best and brightest from around the world, both within and outside the EU, while at the same time regularising the treatment of English students and EU students in Scotland, which is presently different?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that our policy will remain as it is, both post-Brexit and pre-Brexit. It is to encourage the brightest and the best to come to this country, where they contribute to our economy and cultural life.

Barely a fortnight ago, the Chancellor told the Treasury Committee that policy should be guided by public opinion in regards to the treatment of international students and the visa system. Does the Home Secretary agree with the Chancellor? If so, will she finally let common sense and public opinion prevail by removing international students from the net migration cap, which is what the Chancellor seemed to suggest?

I certainly agree with the Chancellor that international students make an incredibly important contribution to our economy and our cultural life. On whether international students should be a part of the immigration statistics, they are part of the Office for National Statistics’ stated statistics and it is not for me to change that arrangement.

In my experience, some time ago when I was doing another job, I found that when I was setting up broadcasting stations, whether in New York city or Gaberone, Botswana, it often helped if I was dealing with people who had been educated in Britain. I therefore certainly agree with the thrust of the question from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). Is not the point that we, the United Kingdom, should decide who should come here, not Brussels? That will be the case after Brexit.

I agree with my hon. Friend that every student who has studied here can become an important ambassador for this country internationally. That is an incredibly important part of the soft power of this country, extending our influence. I would say to my hon. Friend, however, that international students are welcome now and we want to continue to attract the best and the brightest. We will continue to do so after we leave the European Union.

Scottish business, the trade unions, the education sector and every political party in the Scottish Parliament, including the Conservative and Unionist party, agree that Scotland needs a return of the post-study route to allow talented students to remain and contribute to the Scottish economy. Similar views are shared by the all-party group on migration, the Home Affairs Committee, the Scottish Affairs Committee, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the Cole Commission on UK exports. Can the Home Secretary explain which organisations advised against the return of the scheme? Indeed, were there any at all who gave such advice?

We think we have the right balance on welcoming the brightest and the best students to this country, and allowing them to stay where they can get a graduate-level job. We have to ensure that the system is fair in attracting people to our best universities and does not allow people to overstay where they do not have graduate-level jobs. If the hon. and learned Lady will indulge me, I will write to her regarding the particular question on what advice we have received.

I would be interested to know what advice was received, but the truth of the matter is that, when compared with countries such as Canada and New Zealand, what the UK Government are offering students in Scotland is pathetic. Is not the real reason why the Home Office is picking on our universities in Scotland a result of the Prime Minister’s blinkered pursuit of her unrealistic net migration target? Is it not time to remove students from that target and recognise that one-size-fits-all immigration policies are neither necessary nor desirable for Scotland, nor indeed for the rest of the UK?

I do not share the hon. Lady’s view. I think our figures are pretty clear. When we talk about net immigration figures, we know that they take account of students coming in and students going out. We have the right way of measuring the number of students who come in, and I do not think it inhibits our appeal to international students, because the fact is that they do want to study here in the UK. We have two of the top 10 universities in the world—and long may that continue.

The Home Secretary is aware that international students contribute over £7 billion to the UK economy and receive 60% approval ratings in the polls, too. Given those figures, is it not clear that in a post-Brexit world, we should split up the immigration figures better to communicate with the public what UK immigration looks like? Will she agree to meet me and colleagues to discuss this issue?

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. There has been a lot of airing of this particular issue about the breakdown of the immigration figures, but I think there is a reasonable amount of clarity about which part of them are students and which part are not.

Members of all parties agree that international students coming here to study is a good thing. Therefore, will the Home Secretary say something about how welcome they feel when hate crimes against black, Asian and minority ethnic people went up 41% in the month after Brexit? Many people over here as students report that when they are seen on the streets of our country, they are being told to go home. Should we not make our country more welcoming and deal with this post-Brexit problem?

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady, and I hope she will join me in spreading the word that international students are welcome here. There should be no hate crime here, which is why I launched my hate crime action plan at the end of July. I can give her some reassurance that the unpleasant and unwelcome spike in hate crime in August has now fallen off.

To return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), we know that international students contribute £7 billion to export earnings, support 137,000 jobs across all regions of the UK and help to make us a world leader in the international knowledge economy, so does the right hon. Lady accept that we are not persuaded by her arguments not to remove international students from migrant totals, and will she undertake to look at the issue again?

I think that the hon. Lady and I are in danger of violently agreeing on the benefit of international students to the economy and to this country in general. However, I think she is tilting at the wrong windmill here by focusing on whether international students are part of the immigration figures or not. As I explained earlier, this is a net figure, so it takes account of the people who come and the people who go. The hon. Lady may be exaggerating the impact that she would expect from the removal of international students from the figures.