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Immigration: International Students

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Office for National Statistics’ Exit Check data released in August, whether they will consider the removal of international students from the net migration figures.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I refer to my interests in the register.

My Lords, the recent publication of exit checks data shows that our reforms since 2010 to tackle abuse in the education sector have worked. Net migration statistics are produced by the independent Office for National Statistics. There is no limit on the number of international students who can come to the UK. As long as students are compliant with Immigration Rules, they should make a very limited contribution to net migration numbers.

My Lords, since 2010, the number of international students coming to the UK has fallen by 6%, while the global market has increased by 7%, with an estimated cost to the UK economy of £9 billion. Does my noble friend agree that this summer’s statistics clearly evidence that there is no material issue with international students overstaying their visas, as 97.4% stayed within those terms? Does she also agree that we need to get out the message, through the FCO, the British Council and all channels and good offices: “Students of the world, you are so welcome here—come study in the UK and be part of our future”?

I agree totally with the points that my noble friend makes. It is very pleasing to see that students are in a very compliant environment. To the year ending June 2017, there was a 9% increase in Russell group universities, and a 17% increase in all student visas granted for Chinese nationals. To bring up a point made in a previous Question, I mention that the proportion of Indian students coming to study in the UK at a higher education institute has increased from around 50% in 2010 to around 93% in the year ending June 2017.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that citation of selective statistics is not terribly convincing—the Indian figure, for instance, being 50% down over recent years? She sits on the Government Bench, which continually tells us that we have to respect votes. Does she therefore recognise that it might be better if her reply respected the vote of this House by a majority of 94 that students should not be considered as economic migrants, which they are not? Will the Government’s White Paper on immigration, due in a few weeks, cover that issue?

I appreciate that within statistics we can say all sorts of things. However, it is not a myth about the Indian students. People who come here and use services and infrastructure for more than a year are counted as migrants.

My Lords, at present, the number of international students is clearly more than 100,000. If the Government persist in their commitment to keep immigration under the tens of thousands, does that mean that there is no scope for increasing the number of international students, for which there appears to be cross-party support as it would benefit the UK economy? I refer to my interests as recorded.

There are well over 100,000 students. In the 2015-16 academic year, 438,000 students enrolled—almost half a million—and visa applications sponsored by universities are 19% higher than they were in 2010. There is no limit on the number of international students who come to this country, and we welcome them all.

My Lords, what special characteristics do students have that mean that they do not use public services or public transport and do not need accommodation?

Are not the figures the Minister gives for the Russell group distorted by the fact that some of those universities have a special visa system?

There has been a tier 4 visa pilot—that is possibly what the noble Lord is referring to—and we will evaluate its effectiveness. However, he actually makes a case for the fact that we welcome international students here.

I jump back to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee: if we applied that logic, surely we would start to treat tourists as immigrants.

A tourist should come here for a specified length of time, which is not usually a year and is generally under three months. When that stay becomes a year, that person becomes somebody who avails themselves of the infrastructure and public services of this country.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the students in the figures that she cited would have registered before there was any thought of Brexit and so forth? As someone who spent several years at the London School of Economics, I am very aware of the bond of respect and loyalty to the country where people study and live for sometimes four or five years; it is very well known. The benefits to that country whether in trade, political co-operation or security matters are immense. Can the Minister not say that students should be considered quite separately from other immigrants who come to this country?

I am afraid that I cannot say that. But my parents were immigrants to this country. They went to university in another country but certainly made this country their home. I agree that the bond that the student has with the country where they study often means that they stay here to work and contribute hugely to the economy of this country. In fact, the MAC is conducting a study on the effect of student migration and will report soon.

Cannot my noble friend accept that there is an overwhelming view in this House that it would be sensible and entirely prudent to treat students separately, particularly at this juncture in our national affairs?

I hesitate to intervene in the sense that, frankly, I could not do a more effective demolition job on the Government’s policy than the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, did. But I still do not think that we have heard from the Minister why the Government apparently see the overriding need to keep international students in the net migration figures, bearing in mind that the evidence shows that their removal would not make any significant difference to those figures. Is she able to explain to us why the Government are not prepared to stand up now and say that they are about to change their policy? From the response that she gave, which appeared to be a glowing one on the number of students coming into the country, can I take it that the universities are still quite happy that international students are retained within the net migration figures?

What the noble Lord said about high compliance lends credence to the fact that our reforms are working in this area. We wish to continue to attract international students to study in the UK and we absolutely recognise the cultural and financial contribution that they make to this country. That is why we have commissioned the study that I referred the noble Baroness to, and why we do not limit the number of genuine international students who come here to study and from whom UK businesses can recruit.