HC Deb 06 February 1979 vol 962 cc184-6
3. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what assessment she has made of the extent to which universities and polytechnics have made arrangements to comply with her policy of reducing the proportion of overseas students to the level reached in 1975–76.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

While full statistics for 1978–79 are not yet available, the indications are that many universities and polytechnics have more overseas students than they had in 1975–76.

Mr. Beith

Is it not clear from what is happening that universities cannot and will not operate a system of discrimination based on country of origin? Is the Secretary of State aware that many vice-chancellors consider the policy to be not only against the spirit of the way in which universities are conducted but even against their charters?

Mrs. Williams

I merely say loudly and clearly that I am strongly in favour of there being overseas students at universities and polytechnics. Nevertheless, it is the case that in 1970–71 there were 32,000 overseas students in further and higher education in this country and that our latest figures, for 1976–77, show that there were 83,000, an increase of two and a half times in the course of six years.

It is incumbent upon the Government to try to establish what are reasonable figures for overseas students. I strongly support there being a substantial number of overseas students. In this country we have proportionately between four and five times more than, say, the United States. But there are planning difficulties about leaving the matter wide open. I am trying to find the best possible solution to the problem in planning terms, while permitting overseas students to come here in substantial numbers.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we get it across to institutions of higher education that the alternative to a numerical quota is rationing by the purse through fee increases? That is much more objectionable and entails increases in fees for domestic students as well, disturbing the whole balance of their financing, more particularly in the difficult conditions they will face during the 1980s in any event.

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The choice of paths is inescapable. Either there is a quota, which many students and academics find objectionable, or there is rationing by the purse, which I and many of my hon. Friends regard as objectionable. We are trying to find a better solution to this question, which is now under consideration. But it is important that the House should recognise that it is not an easy problem to deal with and that Britain is at present something of a magnet to those overseas students who wish to learn in the English language.