HC Deb 20 November 1979 vol 974 cc189-91
4. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether the number of overseas students in England and Wales increased, and if so by how much, on each of the last two occasions on which tuition fees for overseas students were raised.

Dr. Boyson

Figures for England and Wales are not readily available, but in Great Britain overseas student numbers increased both in 1976–77 and 1977–78—the last two academic years with significant increases in tuition fees for which statistics are available. In 1976–77 the fee increase was 30 per cent. and the increase in student numbers nearly 11 per cent. In 1977–78 fee increases ranged from 40 per cent to over 100 per cent. while student numbers increased by nearly 4 per cent.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Do not the figures show how unwise it is for those, amongst whom I certainly count myself, with a continuing commitment to overseas students coming to our places of higher education to make the certain forecast that numbers will fall dramatically? Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity of the considerable increase now being made to consult other Ministers to ascertain whether we can now evolve a different system that will differentiate country by country in a far more sophisticated manner than anything we have at present?

Dr. Boyson

I am grateful for that suggestion. We shall consult other Ministers and those interested in foreign students coming to this country. It is as well to remember that we have already developed a scheme to provide bursaries to enable the most able research students to come here without paying any more than students from within this country. We are considering what modifications may be made to encourage EEC students to come here. The FCO and the ODA will continue to fund students from under-developed countries.

Mr. Kinnock

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the figures are not meaningful as no Government previously have ever proposed full-cost fees for overseas students? Is he aware that the education institutions and their representative bodies from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors to every other sphere are unanimous that the increased fees that are proposed will jeopardise the very existence of important courses, will represent a major breach of faith with the Third world and poor students and will have immense economic and cultural implications for Britain's relations with much of the remainder of the world?

Dr. Boyson

It is as well to remember from where the students are coming. Over one-quarter are coming from countries whose per capita income is higher than the average per capita income in Britain. In many other cases the students come from families whose average incomes are well ahead of that in this country. In many cases it is possible that all we are doing—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not agree—is taking the elite from those countries, not necessarily those from the poorest areas.

The Labour Government first brought in differential fees in 1967–68 and increased them five times over during their time in office. They funded universities, polytechnics and colleges of higher and further education to take in 72,000 students last year. There was a total of 87,000 students taken in. Therefore, 15,000 students were not paid for by the Government. Year after year, by means of the quota method, the Labour Government tried to reduce their numbers. We have tried to reduce the number to no lower than that intended by the previous Government.

Mr. Crouch

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern expressed by vice-chancellors and principals on the effect of the structure of university courses as a result of the rise in overseas students' fees? Will he therefore consider operating the scheme at least on a trial basis, as it were, to test the market?

Dr. Boyson

Obviously we shall watch what happens next year with the recruitment. The figures indicate at the moment that there is only a 5 per cent. to 8 per cent. decline in applications from overseas students, despite the fact that this year there were four times as many applications as students taken in. It is as well to remember that the British first degree course is the most intensive, possibly one of the most expensive but one of the most efficient in the world. Compared with other countries where there are five-year and six-year degree courses, to come here for three years, even at these fees, is a very economic investment.

Mr. Flannery

Will the hon. Gentleman stop trying to make a virtue out of something which is inherently evil? Does he not realise that, despite the laughter of the well-heeled hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches, the reality is that many of the students are about to be cut off in midcourse? They are in great difficulty. We are already receiving letters from them. [Interruption.] It is no good telling us that they are not in difficulty. I am more than eager that the hon. Gentleman should give me the answer. How would we feel if we were cut off in mid-course in the midst of our studies?

Dr. Boyson

I am sure that none of us would ever want the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) to be cut off in mid-course, although others wish that he had been cut off at an earlier stage.

Next year's increase to an economic fee applies only to students joining next year. We said that we would not increase beyond the inflation rate the fees of those who were already here. Therefore, those who wrote to the hon. Member must have misunderstood the position. I hope that he will now explain to them what is the situation.

The expenditure on foreign students was £120 million. Much of that was funded not just by university graduates in this country through their taxes but by many of our 16-year-olds who never had the chance to go to university.

Mr. Speaker

This question will come up again later.

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