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Overseas Students

Volume 628: debated on Monday 11 September 2017

5. What discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on the financial contribution of overseas students to English universities and the classification of such students in Government immigration statistics. (900743)

We regularly engage with the Home Office on international students, who make a great contribution to our higher education system, providing 13% of its income in 2015-16.

In light of recent exit check data, which show that the number of students who have overstayed is very low, will the Government introduce measures to grow the number of international students coming to UK universities?

We recognise the value of international students in our system, which is why we have recently asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review in full the contribution that they make to our university system. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there are no limits to the number of international students who can come at present. We are second in the world in our market share of international students, and we want that to continue.

As my hon. Friend has said, international students provide a wealth of benefits to our universities. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the UK higher education sector remains a welcoming place for students from foreign countries?

It is a welcoming place, as attested to by the fact that this year, for the sixth year in a row, we have 170,000 international students coming into our system, which is a record number. We want that to continue. The work of the British Council contributes to that, as does the work of the GREAT campaign. I will be in India in November drumming up business for our universities, and I expect that other Ministers will do so too.

What action is the Minister taking in respect of overseas students on vocational courses who need to do work experience, which is regarded as illegal working by the Home Office, leading to unnecessary and heartbreaking deportations?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question. We must ensure that our offer for international students is competitive in all respects and that they feel they will get the kind of provision that suits their needs and opportunities to learn in a workplace environment. We will study his comments with interest.

The Minister is quite right that we are doing well with international students, particularly from China and India, but universities across the UK are losing out in the recruitment of students from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, because the UK has one of the least competitive policies on post-study work in the English-speaking world. Will he commit to work with the Home Secretary to reinstate the post-study work visa?

The hon. Lady will be encouraged, I hope, by the pilots that the Home Office has recently undertaken with a number of institutions—four, I believe —to enable a more liberal post-study work regime. The Home Office and the Department for Education are examining that pilot carefully, and it is our ambition that when circumstances allow, it can be extended more broadly across the sector.

The pilot provides only a narrow range of courses that are eligible for participation in the scheme, so it needs to be widened. The Scottish National party has consistently called on the UK Government to remove international students from the net migration figures. Now that the Government figures on net migration among those students have been utterly discredited, will the Minister join us in calling for those students to be removed permanently from net migration figures?

As I said a minute ago, that would not limit numbers. The fact that they are in the migration cap does not limit the ability of institutions to recruit as many international students as they wish, provided that they meet the requisite academic standards. There is no cap and no plan to introduce a cap, and that applies to Scottish institutions as much as it does to English ones.

It is a sad fact that it actually does have an impact on the number of international students coming to the UK. For years, the Prime Minister told us that we need to clamp down on international students who overstay their visas, using figures to suggest that as many as 100,000 people are remaining in the UK illegally. In fact, we know the figure is now 4,600 students—the Government were out by 95%. Does the Minister fully support the Prime Minister’s desire to keep international students in the net migration target?

We welcome strongly the work the Office for National Statistics is now doing to improve the quality of statistics relating to international students. Like the hon. Member, we noted its preliminary conclusion that the International Passenger Survey might be systematically undercounting emigration after study. I was very pleased that the Home Office report on exit checks data, published on 24 August, showed that students are very largely compliant with immigration rules. That is an important bit of information and it underscores our intent to continue the situation whereby there is no cap on the number of students who can come and study in this country.