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Migration: International Students

Volume 794: debated on Monday 7 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to remove international students from the net migration statistics.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, the independent Office for National Statistics, which follows best international practice, produces the migration statistics. The Government do not seek to influence that. The Migration Advisory Committee also recommended that students should not be taken out of the net migration statistics. There is no plan to limit the number of genuine international students who can come to the UK, and university-sponsored student visa application numbers are at a record high.

My Lords, the United States, Australia, France and Germany have all achieved greater growth in the numbers of international students. In the light of that, does my noble friend believe that we have the right strategy? What is happening across Whitehall to ensure that we really grip this issue and make sure that, when it comes to international students, we are doing everything we can to ensure that the brightest and the breast—the brightest and the best—choose Britain?

Well, my Lords, to keep abreast of the international growth figures, I think we should measure our success by the number of students applying for visas and coming here to study. There has been a 26% increase in visa applications since 2010-11, so we are certainly not deterring students coming here to study; indeed, the UK is becoming an increasingly popular place to come to for study. Perhaps I may quote from the MAC report. It states:

“Part of that joint action”—

in terms of improving the country’s image—

“would be to talk less about students in the net migration target as it is possible that the repeated discussions of students in the target is itself contributing”,

to the perceived problem.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the MAC report. That report says very clearly that the number one reason why international students do not choose Britain as their number one choice is the lack of post-study work opportunities. Does the Minister agree that we are losing out in growth rates? Should we not bring back the two-year post-graduation work visa so that we can compete with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America, let alone the EU countries?

The noble Lord might like to know that the number of student visas granted to students from India, a country he often asks me about, has increased by 33%, so there are certainly no problems there. Indeed, we have gone further than the MAC recommended on post-study leave to remain and increased it to six months for graduates, and we will increase it to 12 months for postgraduate students.

My Lords, why are the Government having such difficulty getting people to believe their position on international students?

I have just explained that in my reply to my noble friend Lord Holmes: we whip this question up although the facts before us belie it. I simply do not believe that a 26% increase in the number of visa applications represents a country struggling.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned India. Did she hear the fascinating series of programmes, “As Others See Us”, on Radio 4 last week? A speaker from India asked—it was a rhetorical question—how we expect India to strengthen its ties with Britain without relaxing visa restrictions. He cited the period allowed for post-study work as being too short. He said, “You cannot take from us a free trade agreement without lowering the immigration restrictions which keep us out”. Are the slight extensions to post-study leave adequate to answer that question?

To answer that question, look at the number of Indian students who are not just applying for but succeeding in getting student visas. How others see us, in terms of how Indian students see us, is as a country which they wish to learn from and study in. I know there is an issue about visa relaxation with India, because I was in Delhi last year, but the figures do not bear that out. Indian students are applying to universities in this country in droves.

Does not my noble friend accept that if we reflected on the wisdom of the question of my noble friend Lord Holmes and the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, our vital statistics would certainly improve?

I made the point that our vital statistics have improved massively in the past eight to nine years. There is no cap on the number of students who can come to study here and, as the future immigration White Paper showed, have great prospects here.

My Lords, since 2011, the number of international students enrolled in UK universities has risen just 3%, compared to a 40% increase for the United States. It is the number of students, not just the visa applications, that is important. Given the immense economic and social benefit of international students, does not the Minister agree that the Government should take further steps to increase our global market share of international students?

My Lords, the fact that there is no cap on student numbers is all to the good. People want to come to this country to study, they are doing so in increasing numbers and, as I pointed out just before we broke up for the Christmas Recess, the increase in post-study leave is to be welcomed and will benefit students.

My Lords, my noble friend is, I believe, saying that we want to encourage international students to come to this country. The confusion arises because they feel that our net migration objectives run counter to that. Would it not be simplest to identify the students coming to and leaving this country separately in national statistics?

My Lords, we are following the advice of the independent Migration Advisory Committee. Similarly, the ONS takes that view of migration statistics. Indeed, we are in line with many countries in the world which do the same. In fact, because there is no limit on the number of students who come here, there is no disbenefit to students being counted in those figures.