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Student Visas: Higher Education

Volume 734: debated on Monday 12 June 2023

11. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the potential impact of changes to the student visa route on the competitiveness of the higher education sector. (905312)

The UK is home to some of the world’s top universities, which benefit from strong international ties—so much so that it is impressive that UK universities have educated 55 of the current world leaders. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are proud of our higher education sector and our commitment to having at least 600,000 international students study here every year. The change we are making will restrict the right of postgraduate students on taught courses to bring in dependants. This decision strikes the right balance to ensure that we have a fair and robust migration policy, and maintain the UK’s place as a top destination for the best and brightest from around the world.

The Higher Education Statistics Authority has shown that 55% of UK universities recorded a deficit in the last academic year. One of the key sources of revenue for universities is international students, who account for almost one fifth of the income of the UK’s higher education sector, and Scottish institutions are paying the price. Does the Secretary of State recognise that her Government’s policy change on student dependants risks jeopardising the key income stream for many financially strained universities across the UK and in Scotland?

No. Our offer to international students remains very competitive, and we are committed to ensuring that the UK remains a destination of choice for international students from across the globe. International students do make a significant economic contribution to the UK economy and to our universities, and they make a significant cultural contribution. These changes will predominantly impact on the dependants of students and, in our view, will not impact on the competitive nature of our university offer.

The Opposition more than recognise the huge value brought to the world-class higher education system by international students. That said, we were clear that we would not oppose the changes the Government have made to student visa rules. However, in responding to a written question earlier today, the Home Office stated that “any indirect impact” of its student visa policies should be “proportionate” to the aims. Will the Secretary of State explain how, given that the Government have failed to conduct an impact assessment, she knows this to be true?

The problem we were trying to solve is that we saw the number of dependants rise more than eightfold from 16,000 in 2019 to 136,000 in 2022, which is an unprecedented increase. Therefore, I fully support the Home Secretary in taking action to reduce the number. From January 2024, students coming to the UK to take postgraduate taught courses will not be allowed to bring in dependants, but students coming for many other courses, such as PhDs or research masters, will still be able to bring in dependants. The international education world is very competitive, which is why we put together an international education strategy—this is the first time we have done it—and why we have somebody working with our universities to make sure that we can attract the best and brightest into our universities, and I am sure we will continue to do that.

As a former teacher, can I just say that I was quite happy to be called “Miss”? I have been called far worse as an MP.

When asked in December about the merits of limiting visas for the dependants of international students, the Education Secretary conceded that, if such a policy was enacted, our ability

“to attract the best students from around the world is going to be reduced”.

This policy is now a reality. It is impacting on our emerging markets in Nigeria and India, and it will skew our market much further towards Chinese students. Does she stand by her initial remarks?

The visas that we were very keen should be available are the two-year graduate route visa, to make sure that all students coming here have two years in which to find a job before they can then apply for a work visa post their study period. That is a very competitive offer and I was very keen to ensure it was in place. We have looked at this very carefully but, as I said to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), we had an unprecedented increase—more than eightfold—in the number of dependants coming here and, bearing in mind our migration figures, we wanted to take action on that.

The eightfold increase happened because of the Secretary of State’s Government’s policies and the collapse of the European market—things that those on the Conservative Benches must be responsible for. The vast majority of international students are temporary visitors, yet they are counted as permanent in the migration figures—a policy the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), has called “bonkers”. A simple solution to halt the ongoing targeting of the students in this market would be to count only those who stay. Why is that not being considered?

The hon. Lady is right: the vast majority of international students return to their home countries once they have finished their studies. Home Office data show that less than 1% of those granted an initial study visa in 2016 had been granted settlement by 2021, but the Office for National Statistics is responsible for the migration figures.